THERE WAS A TIME when liveaboard boats would come into a little sheltered bay for the evening, prior to returning to Port Ghalib in southern Egypt. They would spend the night there, often emptying their waste tanks, and divers would take the opportunity to make a last dive before the end of their trip.
There was an inauspicious little reef, and a lot of sea grass. It was only after divers, bored with looking at the coral, started to wander over the grassy areas that it was realised that a number of huge green turtles, complete with accompanying remoras, inhabited the place.
Not only that, but guitarfish habitually cruised the grassy underwater plain. Even a mimic octopus has been photographed there.
However, the star of the show was undoubtedly the dugong. It grazes the area like the sea cow after which it is often named, and occasionally a mating pair has been sighted.
Before long the bay, known as Marsa Abu Dabab, became one of the most noted sites for those diving in the southern area of Egypts Red Sea. Every dive became a search for the dugong.
Red Sea dugongs are rare and solitary creatures, and although I dived there many, many times, and even saw a pair at the surface, I never got to see one under water.
It must be presumed that many of the shallow bays that dot the coastline this far south are grazing lands for these animals although, unlike cows, here they do not graze in herds.
About the size of a cow, and reminiscent of a little underwater elephant from the front, this marine mammal has a large tail not unlike that of a whale. When sailors from Europe first glimpsed them from a distance, carrying their offspring with the forward flipper in an arm-like posture, the encounter may well have given rise to the legend of the half-human, half-fish mermaid.
Many people confuse dugongs with the fresh water manatees of Florida. Although they are of the same order of Serena they look quite different, especially considering that
incongruous tail.
In fact the dugong looks quite absurd. Who in their right mind would have designed an elephant with the tail of a whale and the eating habits of a cow
Dugongs are said to inhabit seagrass beds in shallow tropical water throughout the Indo-Pacific region. The majority of the worlds population of dugongs are to be found between the northern part of Western Australia and the corresponding part of Queensland.
They use their whale-like flukes for propulsion, and their forward flippers for balance. Their movements are slow, and usually graceful.
They stay under water only for short periods because, unlike other marine mammals, they cant hold their breath for very long. This is probably another reason why they like shallow water.
Dugongs can live for around 70 years, but take some 17 to reach adult maturity. They are listed as vulnerable to extinction. For this reason it was decided to ban boats from Marsa Abu Dabab and, effectively with it, scuba diving.
Alas, these political moves are often too little too late. By the time the ban came into force, a large holiday resort and hotel had been built on the shore at Marsa Abu Dabab and, of course, it has a dive centre. Bad luck for the dugong, one would think.

THIS YEAR I WENT to the eco-resort at Marsa Shagra. It follows the old-fashioned style of dive operation first introduced by the Israelis in Eilat when they possessed the Sinai.
Guests can stay in a tented encampment or in small chalet-style accommodation. Theres a communal dining room or restaurant, and a shaded area where dive kit is stored and donned.
Divers can shore-dive at will, opt for a short RIB ride to a nearby fringing reef, or further out to the Elphinstone if they are hardy enough, or they can truck dive.
The latter means travelling by truck to shore-dive somewhere along the coast, which to me all seems like rather hard work. However, the Marsa Shagra Eco Village operates the diving centre at Marsa Abu Dabab and you can get permission to dive there, from the shore, under its auspices.
So now you know why I was there!
I was prepared to spend all week if necessary searching for the elusive dugong, but there was no need.
My first visit to the now-crowded holiday beach suggested that my buddy Rami and I had only to sit on the shore in our dive kit and wait until we saw 30 Italian holiday-makers becoming hysterically frenetic, yelling and screaming and splashing above the dugong, to know where it was.
When we swam out, I could hardly believe what I saw. The animal was in only around 3m of water, and within easy reach of those prepared to hold their breath. Above it, dozens of flipper-clad feet bicycled frantically. Yet the animal seemed totally unperturbed, grazing on the grass in its bovine manner with its capacious, bristly snout.
Occasionally it would rise in an almost stately manner through the melee to take a breath of air, before returning gracefully to the bottom to continue feeding.
It was me that was perturbed. My camera was kicked by endless feet. My regulator was continually wrenched from my mouth by the wayward limbs of swimmers crashing into me. I got bruises in places I didnt know I had.

I WAS HAVING A TOUGH TIME, and I wondered why we stayed in such shallow water, but the dugong didnt seem to give a damn.
It did have numerous old scars on its back, but before you assume that ladies manicured nails or jewellery caused these, be informed that male dugongs have tusks that they use during the mating season.
Not only that, but this particular animal appeared to be quite a clumsy swimmer when it came to manoeuvring. Im told that when the wind gets up and waves form in the bay, it sometimes crashes against the coral. Clumsy cow!
Now, if you were to leave a cow to graze in a field, there would be plenty of evidence of its passing. Youd have to take care where you walked.
There was none of that in Marsa Abu Dabab, thanks to the voracious activities of the huge and obviously well-fed remoras that travelled with the dugong, quietly getting on with the job of cleaning up as they went.
In fact, life seemed to be carrying on as normal for the dugong. If it didnt like the madding crowd, it would have gone somewhere else. But I was relieved when its path of uncropped grass led it down to 9m deep, where the raucous revellers above were less able to reach and interfere with me! I then got shots of the dugong in a more natural state.
It was only afterwards that I realised that the pictures of the animal with the madding crowd told more of a story. Dugongs dont care. Give them plenty of grass, and dont bother them.

A week at the Marsa Shagra Southern Eco Village costs from 720 including return flights from London or Manchester to Marsa Alam, transfers, full-board accommodation and unlimited shore diving for five days at Marsa Abu Dabab. Oonasdivers, 01323 648924

The dugong seems quite unfazed by the madding crowd.
John Bantin and dugong. The dugong is on the right
Dugongs frequently surface to breathe.