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Dugong - The Encounter


The Encounter

Photo Gallery
and Habitat

While feeding on seagrass
makes clouds of sand.

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.
In the meanwhile I've been hearing more and more about dugongs being seen in the Egyptian marsas (creeks along the coast with shallow waters, sandy depths and grassland), which are unusual destinations for scuba cruises.

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.
This marsa was very different from how we had imagined it. The long shore was crowded with tourists; straw beach umbrellas and sun loungers behind a long row of parked coaches and minibuses. Many people were snorkeling in the water. It didn't look like the sort of solitary, wild place where we could search for a dugong and we had almost given up hope. However, while anchoring, we saw a sallowish silhouette underwater, which grew bigger and bigger as it got nearer. It emerged to breathe and then dove again with a wide flip turn, showing the two large flukes of its flat tail. We stared open-mouthed: it was the dugong!

Marsa Abu Dabbab, almost
empty in the late afternoon

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.
I drew a deep breath, dove down and reached it. The dugong turned its small eye towards me, carrying on imperturbably cropping the seagrass which grows abundantly on the sea-bed. I shot the first photograph and then went up for air. I continued in this manner till I reached the end of my film. I quickly swam back to the boat, reloaded my camera and this time I managed to take the tank containing the air remaining from my last dive.

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.
Once every three minutes or so she drew away from the bottom with a hoist of her fore-limbs and emerged to the surface with slow flicks of her tail to take a couple of breaths. Then she dove again and went on eating from the point where she had left off. I stayed with her for all the time my tank allowed me, shooting a whole film of photographs. At last I surfaced and then followed her from above, before coming out of the water.

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.
The she-dugong came at noon and began to eat, keeping close to the sea-bed at a depth of about 10 meters. I immediately joined her, ready to shoot photographs. This time she was escorted by a small Golden trevally (Gnathanodon speciosus) in its juvenile yellow livery with black vertical stripes. Disregarding the depth, some guides skin-dived, showing off in irritating poses and whipping up clouds of sand. Needless to say many of my photographs were spoiled.
In order to avoid the wild crowd that was waiting for her on the surface, the dugong dove and then emerged covering long diagonals, moving to deeper and deeper waters. But she was inevitably reached each time she surfaced, while countless hands came forward trying to touch her. The result was that she left the bay after only a few minutes.
She came back one hour later, but the deplorable behavior of most of the tourists made her hurry away again. This occurred for a third time and then she never came back. Even by sunset she didn't come to rest again in the shelter of the bay. The next day she also didn't appear. The following day, while I was anxiously waiting for her to come back, some marine-park rangers, aboard a dinghy, got near and ordered us to leave the bay, even though the moorings were indicated and offered for public use on the official map, which had been issued by the marine-park authority itself. On the preceding days, those moorings had been used also by Egyptian boats loaded with tourists. The only result of our demands for an explanation was our being threatened with immediate arrest if we didn't leave the bay within one hour. In such a situation it's completely useless to argue. There's nothing one can do, one just has to put up with these acts of arrogance in silence.

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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