In search of the last dugongs

The sea, of course, is every color of blue.

Until you decide to dive underneath it, on a windy day, with viz of about one metre.Not a good idea if you’re looking for dugongs. Because there may be a lot of other things looking specifically for you.

But I piled under anyway, because we didn’t have much time, and I really wanted to see one of the presumed 200 endangered dugongs left in the Bazaruto Archipelago, off the coast of Mozambique.Yes, the dive was a waste of time, and I got some murky views of murky views.

But tomorrow they say, is a whole new day. And so it was. Crystal clear waters, and flashing jewels of fish sweeping by. But no dugongs. At least not close anyway.They arched their backs above the surface, and then slid away like elusive mermaids.

Our salty dog boat captain sped after them, and then I plunged in, and of course, the dugongs were salty sea miles further away. So what we got was some dugong backs shining on the surface, and little else.

But that was okay, We had seen our first dugongs. At least four of them.

But we got to learn more about these little known ‘Sea Cows’. The local fishermen are adamant that there used to be dugongs everywhere just ten years ago. They are also adamant that the big Chinese and EU based super-trawlers, which they say they have witnessed sailing into inland waters at night, have drowned hundreds of dugongs in nets and snared them in longlines. (Dugongs need to surface to breathe, just like us).

I tend to agree with these experienced men of the sea, who have seen their catches dwindle annually, until they have to make a living elsewhere (one was our dive boat skipper). Further support of their statement came when seated on the dunes one evening, and three trawlers grew closer and closer.

There are other reasons the dugongs are endangered. They have a long breeding cycle, similar to humans ( and they live to about the same age as humans – around 70years old). Dugong  With one calf born everyfew years, a year long pregnancy, and mothers who suckle the calves for about a year and a half, and then devote themselves to nurturing and teaching their young through to puberty at about ten or twelve years old, this slow and patient cycle does not make many dugongs.

Combined with man’s incursions into their beautiful world, the hope for their future is not good. The seagrass they need to graze upon every day has been reduced by dredging, pollutants and silt borne by rivers entering the sea. In this way, man has reduced the seagrasses of this part of the Indian Ocean by up to 60%.

But there are voices calling for protection of dugongs, as well as rays and sharks (both species have fins used in Asian medicine) from Cordio, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wild Oceans conservation NGO’s. They are calling for restrictions on the foreign fleets in these waters, as well as a more focussed campaign protecting the diversity of species in African waters in general.

The real problem seems to stem from the abject poverty that most of the fishermen of  the region find themselves in. With Mozambique having failed in launching their own patrol boats and trawlers, in a deal enmeshed in scandal, which is now being tried by the US Justice Department in New York, local people have little chance of earning their rightful catch, and participating in sustainable fishing in their own waters.

Yet I still recommend a trip to Bazaruto. The islands are amongst the most beautiful in all the seven seas, and what is heartening is that the local tourism industry, from low cost hostels to six star island lodges, all are committed to protecting their environment, and training and providing an income for locals.

Your tourist dollars mean that in a small way, you’ll be helping keep a piece of paradise. From the waiter you tip, the fish and beers you buy at a restaurant, the accommodation you relax in, to the dive masters and the guides or skippers who take you to the beauty spots of the archipelago.

Go splash !



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