Dugong - The Encounter
For many years I dreamed of encountering a dugong, ever since that day way back in my
childhood, when I had been captivated by this animal while watching a TV documentary. In the course of
my travels in Indonesia, I'd often heard local fishermen talking about dugongs in a rather vague manner,
pointing to the sea with broad gestures. I'd never managed to get any precise indications or the name of
a bay where I could realistically hope to meet one.
The right opportunity arose in March, when I took part in the transfer of a catamaran from Genoa to the Red Sea. When my fellow-travelers and I got there, we were able to wander at will, so I insisted on searching for the dugong. I had often heard the name of El Quseir mentioned, but when I got there I wasn't able to find any reliable information. People often mentioned marsas which didn't appear on our nautical charts and they couldn't even indicate the right position of these places on the maps. I confess that I was growing rather pessimistic. The days passed and time was running out. At last, one name arose from two different sources: Marsa Abu Dabbab. This one was on the map, a few miles south of Port Galeb, exactly the area we were heading for, sailing up from Marsa Alam.
April 1st is famous for jokes. I have to admit that it was a very lucky day for me! It was one of
those rare days on the Red Sea, when the wind is slack: in the morning, at Elphinstone Reef, we saw a gorgeous
hammerhead shark on the plateau of the south point. Later, in the early afternoon, we headed for Marsa Abu Dabbab
to spend the night there and search for the dugong.
We immediately put on our dive-suits. I took my Nikonos V with half of the roll which was
left from the dive at Elphinstone and we plunged into the water. A rapid stroke of the fins and there,
sure enough, we saw a large cloud of sand rising up and then the unmistakable, stout silhouette lying on
the sea-bed, 6 meters down.
Now, as I had my complete diving equipment, I was able to lie down on the sea-bed with her (it was a female
specimen) and quietly look at her. Her snout broadened like a short proboscis, while she plucked seagrass off
the sea-bed with rapid moves of her mouth, expelling fine sand into a cloud which looked like smoke. Her body
was leaning on her fore-limbs, wrapped around like fins, which she used in order to move forward. Her tail was
relaxed as it wasn't necessary for these movements. I shot photographs while she, not in the least bit disturbed,
cast quick glances at me as she carried on eating.
Next morning I saw her again swimming in the bay. Her way of swimming had changed: it was faster and she descended where the water was more than 20 meters deep. She always emerged a long way from where she had plunged. The total lack of wind made the sea perfectly smooth and helped the sighting. I went into the water and searched for her where I had seen her disappear the latest time, but all I could find were clouds of sand as a sign of her passing. From the boat some friends of mine watched the surface of the sea to spot where she might come up, but they didn't spot her again. I went back onto the boat and stayed on the lookout without seeing her until 2 p.m., when it was time to leave. This is how my first encounter with a dugong ended. An old dream had come true!
After coming back to Italy, I got my slides developed: I kept on looking at those images, totally fascinated by this animal. Thus I decided to go back to Egypt, taking advantage of the fact that the boat was staying on for a few more days.
But this time, unfortunately, not everything ran smoothly...
As I went on board I immediately came into conflict with the absurd Egyptian bureaucracy, which kept us blocked in port for three days, waiting for clearance for the boat. Anyway this hitch had a positive consequence: not being allowed to set sail, we ended up exploring Marsa Mubarak (about one mile and a half south of Port Galeb) with a dinghy. Much to our surprise there we found a dugong swimming up and down the wide bay, making protracted and repeated dives. Only once, and for a short time, did I succeed in seeing him underwater. He was a huge full-grown adult specimen. Five suckers were stuck in the rear of his body, near his tail. He swam parallel to the bottom, about one meter up from the sea-bed, with slow and regular moves of his tail. He didn't stop to eat, ignoring the abundance of seagrass. I tried to get closer in order to photograph him, but he swam too fast and soon got out of sight. In any case I was really happy to realize that another dugong lived on that stretch of coast!
The boat's clearance finally arrived and we set sail towards Marsa Abu Dabbab. Unfortunately, in the space
of just three weeks, things had gotten much worse. There was now a massive tourist presence. The bay was crowded
with solid groups of swimmers and scuba divers following Egyptian and non-Egyptian guides.
I believe that, at this point, my experience with Egyptian dugongs is over. There are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding them which I had hoped to resolve after making a detailed and painstaking study of this species. But business has prevailed: a sort of 'circus' has been built around this dugong. And if I previously wished she could find safety and peace in the smooth waters of Marsa Abu Dabbab, all I hope for now is that she can soon find a new marsa, an isolated one, without a beach, far from human presence that is unable to show nature the respect it deserves.
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