Seagrass guardians

In Vanuatu, the Edges of Earth expedition team meets the resident dugong population and finds out what vital roles they play in the local ecosystems.

Words by Andi Cross
Photographs by Marla Tomorug
Additional photographs by Adam Moore

On expedition, some of the most exciting moments start with an endangered species we are trying to find and end with the people we inevitably get the chance to meet. When there’s an animal we have been seeking, and we finally get to see it in the wild, it’s exhilarating. When we have the opportunity to talk to the people on the frontlines of conservation and hear their incredible stories, it’s inspiring. This has been our experience in Vanuatu, while on the quest to find elusive, herding dugongs.

My personal fascination with dugongs started when I moved to Perth, Western Australia. They have a significant presence along the coastlines of northern Australia, including the Great Barrier Reef and the waters of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In 2019, as Perth’s newest resident, I thought I was destined to stumble upon these majestic creatures on one of my many dives.

I came to realize this was not something that happened overnight, and my dream to see a dugong might have to be left only for the imagination. The thing about finding dugongs is that they travel over large distances, usually in pairs, in hopes of finding the staple of their diet: seagrass. Where there’s seagrass in the Indo-Pacific, there are dugongs. Your chances of seeing them become much higher if you are perched near the grass waiting patiently for these gentle giants to swim by.

But, as with many ocean environments, seagrass meadows and beds are in rapid decline. Coastal development, pollution, coastal erosion, overfishing, invasive species and of course, climate change all are impacting seagrass meadows around the world. Mitigating these factors is critical because of the benefits seagrass provides such as promoting biodiversity, carbon sequestration, coastal protection, water quality improvement and climate resilience.

With the support of dugongs, seagrass meadows and beds have the chance of survival. Dugongs are the only herbivorous marine mammals and therefore are essential seed distributors. For all the grass that the sea cows eat, they also help to regrow their favourite food.

After five years of travelling around Australia and zero luck finding dugongs on any of my attempts, I decided this was a must-see species as part of our expedition. I stumbled upon the Maskelyne Island chain in Vanuatu and met the man who, unbeknownst to me at the time, would facilitate one of the best ocean encounters I could have imagined.

What makes this island chain so unique is that it’s hardly been touched. The communities that reside on the few inhabited islands live off the land and sea in perfect harmony, taking only what they need to survive while trying to give back as much as possible. At least that’s how Sethric lives, the owner of the eco-homestay called Batis Bungalow. Sethric has been observing dugongs his entire life and would soon become the ‘gong expert’ in our team’s eyes.

There’s lots of folklore surrounding dugongs and depending on where you are, the legends vary. For example, in Australia I would hear tales of dugongs being mistaken for mermaids, as they swim near shorelines and pop their heads out of the water to breathe. There were even some accounts of deprived sailors out at sea using dugongs as female surrogates. In the Philippines, dugongs are often depicted as symbols of undying love between couples. They are believed to possess a strong bond that lasts a lifetime, inspiring romantic stories and legends.

In Vanuatu they are revered in some locations as spiritual guardians and a sign of good ocean health and prosperity. If there are dugongs around, that means the seagrass and reefs are thriving, and therefore the communities would thrive as well. There’s a saying called ‘tabu’ which means to protect our natural world in Vanuatu, and that directly applies to the dugongs.

But despite this reverence, historically, dugongs have been hunted in Vanuatu like in many other places in the Indo-Pacific. Their meat and oil were considered useful, and like whales, they were on the kill list. In other instances, remote island nations were not aware of conservation practices of dugongs or seagrass, which would lead to the animals being hunted.

Today, things are a bit different, as conserving and protecting dugongs in Vanuatu is a major priority. Not only on the local level, but on the scientific, tourism and government levels as well. Vanuatu Environmental Science Society (VESS) built robust guidelines on how to interact with dugongs in the wild, and ecotourism guidelines that must be adhered to. That’s where all signs pointed to Sethric as our go-to guide, as he is out on the water every day with these creatures and knows how to interact with them in the right way.

During peak winter season, Sethric told us he sees dugongs every single day. And being in Vanuatu with Sethric in these winter months, we got to experience this first hand. We didn’t just see one or two, as I was hoping for. We saw up to 20 on a single dive. After a week of insane breath-holding to stay down with these magnificent animals to get a close enough look, we felt like our Maskelyne Islands dives matched our descriptions of the creatures themselves: magnificent.

Diving with dugongs means to be as still, quiet and patient as possible. They don’t like anything disrupting their natural flow. We had to learn to get on their level and be one with their habitat, proving that we were just part of the scenery. Once that was achieved, these animals were curious and dare I say, playful. They were circling us as if to say, “catch me if you can!” Dugongs are fast moving, even though they seem like they’d be slow and docile, as they’re shaped like spuds.

Here’s the craziest thing about the islands though. There’s no real gauge on the dugong population in these waters, and the only full country aerial survey was conducted in 1988. More recently, VESS conducted a light survey in 2017-2018 and determined that dugongs are still seen throughout the archipelago, but are facing significant threats, especially when it comes to gill net fishing. Through the survey, the Maskelynes were identified as 1 of 6 high priority dugong hotspots in Vanuatu. Ultimately, this shows that there’s so much left to learn about dugongs in the Maskelynes, and the country overall.

Our imaginations were now running wild with a new narrative. We couldn’t believe how little was known about these exceptional waters. This is the kind of diving that makes you feel like you have truly made it to the edges of earth. And after having this type of experience with so much interaction, we asked ourselves, “to tell or not to tell?”

On one hand, this area was so untouched, it felt like it should remain that way forever. The less interference from humans, the better. But on the other hand, and our preferred approach, sharing experiences means sharing knowledge. It offers us the opportunity to allow others to form deep bonds with the ocean in the same way we have. What started as a burning desire to find dugongs left as a deep appreciation for our time spent with Sethric at Batis Bungalow. As well as a love for the Maskelyne Islands and the country in general.

This is why we wanted to share this story. It’s one thing to read about a place or watch a documentary about it. But, in order to fully appreciate and understand the power and importance of the ocean, one must see for themselves. With more travellers, conservationists, scientists, creators (and beyond) sustainably visiting this off-the-map destination, the more knowledge we can gain on this elusive species. This means we can identify more ways to protect and serve them. And perhaps these grass loving, potato looking, mermaid impersonating marine mammals can have the chance to thrive long after we are gone.


Photographs by Marla Tomorug
Additional photographs by Adam Moore

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