The Dugong, a distant relative of the Manatee, can live up to seventy years and grow to over a thousand pounds. These gentle creatures reach lengths of up to ten feet and have fluked tail fins similar to whales. Dugongs spend much of their time alone or in pairs, though they are sometimes seen gathered in large herds of a hundred animals. Dugongs are relatively slow moving and spend most their days grazing on various types of sea grasses, rooting for them with their bristled snouts. These animals can stay underwater for approximately six minutes before surfacing. These physical characteristics have enabled humans to hunt the dugong for centuries. Female dugongs give birth to a single infant after a thirteen-month pregnancy. The mother then spends the next two years raising her cafe. Although a female dugong can live as long as seventy years, she will only have a few offspring, investing considerable time with each one. This means the dugong population is especially sensitive to over-hunting and habitat destruction.
Dugong populations can be found in the warm coastal waters of the south pacific, from southern Japan to Australia. They prefer high visibility and shallow water, as they can spend only six minutes submerged. Unlike the Manatee, the Dugong is a strictly marine mammal, which makes it the only strictly-marine herbivorous mammal in the world. The Steller’s Sea Cow was also part of this category until its extinction, at the hand of humans, in the 18th century.
In Western folklore these creatures are said to have fooled lonely sailors into mistaking them for mermaids. In Japanese folklore, these gentle giants have come to symbolize the balance between ocean and human. For this reason the dugong holds a special place within Japanese folklore. According to ancient stories, dugongs warned villagers of impending tsunami’s, or cursed them depending on the villagers respect of the sea. Others tell stories of villagers marrying dungongs and one text even claims the dugong taught the first Okinawan’s how to procreate.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has classified the dugong species as threatened by extinction. Although commercialized hunting of the Dugong has been down in recent years, runoff from industry and farming practices has had a dramatic effect on the sea grasses which make up the dugongs entire diet. In the vibrant waters of Okinawa’s Henoko bay, large populations of dugongs once grazed on the vast expanses of sea grass. Decades of US military operations have had a devastating effect on these meadows. The dugongs have suffered as a direct result of the US presence. Okinawa is commonly referred to as the “Galapagos’s of the east” for its amazing biodiversity. The future of the dugong is in many ways the future of this undersea paradise.
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