Swimming with a mermaid
A siren with a forked tail - at last Dan Burton had got his wish on a trip to the Red Sea, and was diving with a dugong. Divernet

IT WAS AT THE END of an action-packed Red Sea diving trip to the Brothers on mv Hurricane when our dive guide Sonia offered us the possibility of seeing dugongs in Marsa Alam.
The dugong is one mammal that I had always wanted to see properly. On a visit to Australia in the 80s I had seen the flick of a tail in Dugong Bay in the Whitsunday Islands, but never managed to swim with one.
On Monty Halls Full Circle wreck expedition in Vanuatu, a dugong lived, and was reportedly regularly seen, on the reef, but not by us. All I got to see was a shadow in the distance.
Marsa Alam, just a few hours south of Hurghada, is host to a small population of dugongs. The bay provides a perfect habitat in which they can feed and bring up their young.
We planned a shallow 10m dive in the bay, and came across turtles and a number of guitar sharks foraging frantically for small fish and crustaceans on the silty bottom. But there was no signs of dugongs, and none of the other boats had seen any for the past few days.
After my final dive of the trip, I sat back basking in the warm winter sun, watching groups of snorkellers thrashing around on the surface. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something else floating on the surface. Within a few seconds a tail flicked up, and the shape disappeared back into the depths.
I knew it was a dugong. I grabbed my camera and snorkelling equipment and rushed over to the site.
As I swam, I could see a large cloud of silt on the bottom. From out of that gloom there appeared a 2m creature, chomping on the sea grass.
Close alongside was a small pilotfish, watching every movement of the gentle giant. The little fish darted in and out of the clouds of silt, foraging for morsels.
After a few minutes the dugong floated up to the surface, and lay basking in the sun as the rays danced on its back. It took a few breaths, did a duck dive and glided back down to the bottom.
I preset the camera, took a few deep breaths and headed for the cloud of silt.
I wasnt sure how the dugong would react to me, but as I drew near it just continued to feed, and I managed to get closer and closer. I sat on the bottom and watched it grazing, its snout buried in the silt. Every now and then, it stopped to munch a mouthful of grass.
With its robust and stocky build, no wonder it has been given the nickname sea cow. But as I watched it glide with ease through the tepid waters and swim to the surface with such grace, I could also understand why early seamen might have mistaken it for a mermaid, though I still think they had probably spent too many days on the high seas.
Its small eye watched every movement I made as it fed, but it didnt appear at all bothered. I ascended to see a number of divers from the boat using rebreathers. The dugong carried on feeding, and Grant the divemaster and his students managed to watch the animal from only a few feet away.
Though this was my first encounter with a dugong, I had swum with manatees at Crystal River in Florida many times and was interested to study the differences between the two species. The dugong can be clearly identified by its dolphin-shaped tail, where that of amanatee is flat and paddle-shaped.
Both belong to the order Sirenia and there are three different types of manatee, the West African, Amazon and West Indian. By far the largest of the family was Stellers sea cow, which grew up to 9m long, but sadly this was hunted to extinction in the 18th century - within 30 years of being discovered.
Dugong and manatees live in both fresh and salt water. Depending on the water temperature, they will migrate to warmer waters to pass the winter months. They have few natural enemies other than man.
There is something special about swimming with these creatures and, as with dolphins, I have a feeling of tranquillity and pleasure in their presence. These happy herbivores mean no harm to anyone or anything and live a peaceful existence. Dugong, like manatees, are an endangered species and protected.
In Florida every year many animals get killed and injured by boats, because of speeding and inconsiderate boat drivers. Its good to see them in Marsa Alam in their natural environment, where there are few boats or dangers. Long may it stay that way.

After some one-on-one time together, Dan and the dugong are joined by other divers from the liveaboard.
That fishtail at once distinguishes the dugong from its paddle-tailed relative, the manatee
Divernet Divernet

WEIGHT: Up to 400kg.
SIZE: Up to 3m.
RELATIVES: Apart from manatees, dugongs are more closely related to elephants than to other marine mammals.
LOCATIONS: Shallow, tropical waters mainly in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in northern Australia, between Shark Bay in WA and Moreton Bay in Queensland.
FOOD: Seagrasses.
BREATHING: The nostrils of dugongs are at the top of the snout and they have to surface to breathe. Unlike most other aquatic mammals, however, they are unable to hold their breath under water for more than a few minutes, especially when swimming fast.
AGGRESSION: Dugongs are very passive, although adult males do fight during the mating season, using their small tusks.
GESTATION PERIOD: 15 months interval between breeding: 3-7 years

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