Appeared in DIVER February 2007

A dugong grazing, with attendant golden trevally

The dugongs of Marsa Abu Dabbab Elbar

THE RED SEA IS FAMED FOR ITS STUNNING CORAL FORMATIONS, multitudes of colourful reef fish and encounters with large pelagic marine life - so its easy to forget its other environments that can be home to interesting and sometimes surprising denizens.
Typical are the shallow sea-grass beds found in protected bays all along the Egyptian coast. Marsa Abu Dabbab Elbar is one such bay, a few miles north of Marsa Alam.
Four years ago a friend who lives in Hurghada told me a tale of diving with a dugong in a deserted bay near Marsa Alam. He had pictures to prove it. Many divers have been lucky enough to encounter this rare creature since, but my patient attempts had proved fruitless - until recently.
Dugongs, the smallest members of the order Sirenia, are relatively uncommon worldwide. As adults they grow to 3m long, weigh in at up to 400kg and, in protected habitats, can apparently live for 50 years or more.
They are also listed as an endangered species. Their natural predators in the Red Sea are sharks, but they are probably at most risk from inshore boating activities and changes to their habitat from coastal development.

THE NAME DUGONG APPEARS to have originated from the Malay word duyung, which means lady of the sea or mermaid. Dugongs are the stuff of seafaring legends created by frustrated sailors after long voyages in the days of sail.
Some people may regard these mammals as attractive, and mine was probably good-looking as dugongs go, but these sailors must have been desperate to consider them as anything other than an easy source of food, and they were often hunted.
Females are also seen suckling their young at the surface from teats close to their flippers - another explanation for the mermaid myth.
Dugongs feed almost exclusively on sea-grass, hence their nickname sea-cow. Several bays or marsas along the coast between Port Galeb and Marsa Alam have rich beds of sea-grass on which they have been sighted.
Local dive guides believe there may be four in the immediate area, but it is a single female that is seen regularly at this location, usually in early morning.
Some research indicates that dugongs prefer to feed at night, but I think the presence of too many divers and snorkellers later in the day is a more likely reason.
A number of liveaboards operating out of Port Galeb use Marsa Abu Dabbab as a final stop-off on the last day of a charter, so this site can be extremely busy on departure days, but most boats are gone by lunchtime to return to port.
The bay is now closed off by a line of buoys that boats are not to cross (in theory). So if you can time your visit for early morning in the middle of
a typical liveaboard weekly schedule, you may avoid the crowds that arrive later in the day.

OUR DIVE STARTED VERY EARLY, and ours was the first group in the water from a number of boats that had moored overnight. The plan was to start at the offshore end of the sea-grass beds, spread out and slowly work our way towards shore.
I had assumed that our search would be uneventful if we missed the elusive dugong, but within minutes I had come across a large green turtle, complete with attendant remoras, calmly munching through the sea-grass.
Turtle encounters are common in the Red Sea, but often fleeting. This one just regarded me imperiously before returning to its munching - it was the remoras that seemed more nervous!
I took a series of shots and moved on, but 25m further on another equally oblivious turtle was followed by one cruising to the surface for air.
I encountered more than a dozen friendly turtles during the search, and other divers had the same experience. The turtles were totally unconcerned - if you got too close with your camera, you simply received a gently push from their flippers!
The sea-grass beds were surprisingly busy, with titan triggerfish puffing away into the sand for shellfish, brilliant green pufferfish, triangular trunkfish, trevallies and the occasional large barracuda and some very skittish guitar rays.
I was running low on air by the time I discerned a frantic tank-tapping and urgent grunting coming from our guide, just on the limit of visibility.
A swift fin across, and there was the dugong, moving quickly across the seabed supported on her front flippers as she fed voraciously on the sea-grass, expelling clouds of sand from the sides of her mouth.
I had a minute or so to take pictures of this spectacular beast before the other photographers arrived.
We were beginning to give each other space when we suddenly saw a dozen more divers charging towards us. Where had they come from Fortunately, the dugong seemed unfazed.
After a few minutes of continuous feeding she stopped abruptly, raised her head and took off for the surface with several strong flicks of her fluke-shaped tail. Other divers had told me that this dugong would take several breaths while swimming before diving back down, and might cover 50-100 in this move. So I was off like a shot, swimming furiously while watching her on the surface as the others dawdled in the cloud of sand left behind her.
I was alone with her again, albeit breathless, for a few valuable moments when she returned to the seabed to feed.
This gave me time to compose shots and wait for the attendant golden trevally in their bright juvenile yellow livery with black vertical stripes to get in the picture, as they fed on titbits in the sand disturbed by the dugong.
My breathing was getting tight, and I realised that my contents gauge was almost on zero, so I took a few more quick shots as the divers arrived and began ascending to make a safety stop, though the water was a mere 7m deep.
I got lucky - moments later the dugong passed me again on her way to the surface.
After the exhilaration of the dive, feelings of guilt began creeping in. This dugong seemed unconcerned about the number of divers wanting to get close to her, but I couldnt help feeling that this must introduce some stress into her daily existence. Large numbers of snorkellers visit from the beach and a large hotel is being built at the south end of the bay.
The expansion of tourism and the attraction of such an unusual creature is inevitable, but I hope the habitat doesnt become untenable for the dugongs.
I hope we can temper our desires to see all that the sea has to offer with a respect for such creatures and their sometimes fragile environment.

This female dugong seemed unfazed by all the attention - but if it should all become too much for them, they are likely to take off.