Gregg Yan did not mind that the too-tight wet suits were turning into a sauna. They we’re aboard a double-decked dive boat in Calauit Island in oh-too-sunny Northern Palawan and today might finally be the day. Over the years, he has met some of the sea’s most amazing residents – from macho tiger sharks to playful dolphins – but one creature has captured his eye and had been more elusive than others.
They were accompanied with an underwater photographer, Danny Ocampo and expert guides from the Tagbanua tribe, they’d hope to enjoy some downtime with a dugong.
Dugongs are legendary sea creatures, having inspired lonely seamen’s ‘sightings’ of mermaids (being out at sea for months or years, who can blame them). Its last relatives were Stellar’s sea cows (Hydrodamalis gigas), which was wiped out by hunters just 36 years after being discovered by scientists.
“It’s still early so we have a fairly good chance of sightings. Look for splashes or shadows near the surface,” explained the guide Dodong Valera. They gazed at their swim-spotter whom was swimming a hundred feet away, homemade plastic fins slapped the sea’s surface. “There are around 30 dugongs in this area. If we’re lucky, we’ll see the largest and friendliest of them all, Aban.”
His brain was baked from the heat, so he nodded absentmindedly and slopped seawater inside his wet suit, trying to cool down. Twenty minutes in and a pound of sweat later, the spotter finally gave the signal: target sighted!
Excitedly, they became one with fin and rig and slid gleefully into a vast expanse of sea grass.
Dugongs (Dugong dugon) are distant cousins of elephants, growing up to three-meters and weighing about 400 kilograms. Also called sea cows, they had inhabited shallow waters of the Coral Triangle, wherever seagrass was most abundant. They are the fourth member of the order Sirenia, alongside the three manatee species. A fifth, the gigantic eight-meter long Steller’s sea cow, was completely wiped out by 1768. Dugong comes from the Malay word duyung, which means ‘lady of the sea.’
Sizable herds of dugongs once plied the Philippine archipelago until hunting and habitat destruction reduced numbers. Populations still hold out in Isabela, Mindanao, Guimaras and Palawan, but encounters are extremely rare.
Dugongs are thought to live as long as humans (about 70 years), but only gave birth to just a single calf every three to five years. They are globally classified as vulnerable and are considered critically endangered in the Philippines because of their sparse numbers. Prior to the groups Coron trip, they’ve spent 20 years looking for one – they’re just that rare.
Says dugong conservationist Dr. Teri Aquino, “We can learn a lot about sustainable use and responsible stewardship from the dugong. It consumes a lot of sea grass yet leaves the sea grass bed even healthier than before. When feeding, they help release micro-nutrients from the seabed, making nutrients more accessible for small fish – and this is why we always see fish swimming with dugongs. This gentle marine mammal living the simplest of lives is one of the best caretakers of our sea grass habitats and the animals that live in them.”
A FAMOUS DUGONG
After 20 years of waiting, he was finally face-to-face with a dugong. He explained that it wasn’t like a whale that steals your breath because of sheer size, nor a shark that inspires more than just a hint of fear, no matter how small it is. Dugongs are huge but friendly, just like a mermaid Hodor.
Dodong signals them to keep at least five meters away from the obliviously grazing bull, crunching on clumps of Halophila ovalis, which unlike most types of sea grass, has small round leaves instead of flowing grass blades. Dugongs wolf down up to 40 kilograms a day, keeping hectares of sea grass pruned and productive. Danny starts shooting.
As the animal ambled closer, he noticed fighting scars on its hide. This is Aban, confirms Dodong with a nod. Owing to its good nature and natural curiosity, generations of divers have swam and photographed the scarred, three-meter long dugong, who seems perennially surrounded by colorful golden trevally. He noticed its skin was brown and not grey (dugongs only look grey in pictures because they’re usually photographed below three meters), its beady eyes and its serene, Siddhartha Gautama-level expression.
As the magical minutes pass, they fin up to leave the meditative mammal be. Incredibly, Aban says goodbye, circling around them on the surface. He waved adios as it dove and disappeared into the teal waters.
Though dugongs are protected by law nationwide, it still gets accidentally entangled in fishing gear and drown. The once-vast sea grass meadows it depends on for food are being destroyed by coastal reclamation and pollution. By protecting not just dugongs – but the sea grass meadows that support these creatures – tomorrow’s Filipinos might too get a chance to come face to face with the real mermaids of the sea.
They climbed back onto their boat, exchanging high-fives and fresh tales to share with other environment-lovers. The boat revved its engines and they we’re off with big smiles etched on their faces.