Did you know that if you look in a mature Dugong’s mouth you will find tusks? Or that they can live to over 70 years and are known to swim up to 1000km between feeding sites? Were you aware that to find a Dugong’s nipple you have to look under its armpit? Or that the outer layer of Dugong skin is so fragile that a carelessly dangled wristwatch peels it back in fine fluttering scrolls to gently wave in the water?
Did you realise that if fortunate enough to have a Dugong nuzzle at your hand, it feels like being gently scrubbed with a rubber backed scrubbing brush? And important to know – that you should always stay well clear of their nostrils unless you like yeasty smelling snot in your face?
Dugongs (Dugong dugon) are found throughout the warmer waters of Australia, from Shark Bay in Western Australia to Moreton Bay in Queensland. They are generally coastal dwelling animals who feed on sea grass species found in shallow clear waters (hence the ‘Sea Cow’ nickname). The largest recorded Dugong weighed in at just over 1000kg but in Moreton Bay they seldom reach past 3.5-3.8m and 400-600kg.
Globally they are considered to be vulnerable to extinction. This is because they breed so infrequently (every 3 to 7 years) that Dugong populations cannot withstand more than a 1-2% human caused death rate per year without eventually being wiped out. In Queensland from the mid 1800’s to the 1930’s Dugong were commercially hunted on a large scale for their oil, meat, bones and tusks.
Today only indigenous hunting of Dugong is permitted and almost every other form of deliberate interference with dugong is highly illegal. There is an exception for very dedicated groups of scientists who go through a lengthy ethics approval process in order to carry out dugong research under strict guidelines. Catching and tagging these beasts is best described as the Dugong Rodeo. It is where researchers and students put their bodies on the line doing what they love.
Boat strike, nets and illegal hunting are all threats to Dugong but the most serious one of all is the rapid loss of their food source: seagrass. Seagrass meadows are declining wherever there is intensive human activity. Whether through direct impacts of development or as a result of excess sediment washed from farm and city in a smothering flood.
Scientists are rallying locals to get involved with monitoring seagrass health and Dugong activity. ‘Local eyes – global wise’ is the motto of the international Seagrass Watch program. Anyone can participate in the program, check the website if you are interested in making a difference.