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Coron 2023: Part 4 - Dugongs

A calm sea with a fisherman on a small boat in the middle distance.


I’m going home, I’ll do this tomorrow 


It’s 9:52pm and I’m back here today yesterday. It's still the 26th, woo! 

The next day was an insanely early start, so early in fact that considered staying up instead of sleeping at all. It didn’t matter in the end as I barely slept anyway, and when the alarm went off at 2:30am, it was time to go. Walking to Nicole and Mika’s hotel that early in the morning was a much different experience than during the day. Nobody was awake, not even the receptionist at the hotel was awake when I left. He was snoring in his chair under the sky. ON the streets, there were only dogs. You almost forget that dogs can be seriously intimidating when they want to be. You spend so much time looking at cute puppies or petting them that you can feel genuinely unprepared when three start growling at you as you approach, and bare their teeth, and bark loudly as you walk by, and threaten to follow you. Act confident, stay calm was that advice I was given, and it worked thankfully. But in the moment, I was reminded that dogs aren’t far removed from wolves at all. When I fumbled my water bottle, the sound of it hitting the road scared a straggler away round the corner. Mercifully, it didn't attract too much more attention, but it was a tense moment and not an experience I want to repeat any time soon. 

The front of a small boat facing a calm ocean

As it turns out, I needn’t have walked to their hotel anyway, since the minivan was going to drive by mine anyway. We drove to progressive hotels and hostels picking up other members of the expedition until we had a van full of free divers, all people Mika has swam with earlier in the week. Some of them had been freediving for decades. Most, if not all talked about holding their breath for upwards of four minutes underwater. I was very clearly not a free diver. And I had shown up without a snorkel or flippers. 

We were going to swim with dugongs, but that required driving to the other side of Busuagna, a trip that altogether took four hours, including stops for petrol and breakfast pick-up. The roads on that island are not smooth, and our driver was treating it like a rally stage. I honestly felt travel sick for the first time in years just from all the bumps and sharp turns we were subjected to. Thank god we could catch some air while we picked up breakfast, or I may well have made the ride intolerable for all of us. 

After what felt like a lifetime for all of us, we arrived. It was quiet. The dock was tucked away down a short, dusty path on the other side of some trees. Two much friendlier dogs were keen to investigate us, though one was scarcely skin and bones, It was a dog skin hung over a skeleton. You could see all the contours of the pelvis as if it were exposed. Though it was still very early morning, the temperature was already at the higher end of the pleasant threshold.

There were three different boats, one for each minivan in our convoy. One of the divers in our van had been woken up earlier at his hostel, and told it was time for him to go. Unfortunately, they had woken up the wrong guy, and now he was on a dugong trip instead of spearfishing like he was supposed to be. What a poor start to the day for him, but ultimately better for the wildlife that he did mess up. 

The rest of us had an amazing start by contrast. There’s always a tiny moment of fear when you wobble when stepping onto a small boat, but everyone made it. The spare flippers that had were about four sizes too small, so no luck there, and no spare snorkel either. I was truly, truly unprepared, and it would affect my experience later on. For now though, I could enjoy the marvellous morning and gently rippling water. We exited the natural harbour and opened up to the coast and open sea, which was serenely still, so much so you could see the currents criss-cross each other across the wide blue expanse. The flotsam was mostly branches, with what looked like some stray coconuts. It didn’t matter that we were on a boat, the roosters could still be heard from the shore, still letting us know we were up far too early. 

The area we arrived at appeared fairly nondescript – in terms of features, at least. Of course, the water was like a window to the ocean floor, and made me wonder how the ocean and seas must have looked before all the modern pollution. Seeing all the life that existed beneath the waves would definitely lend credit to the idea of sea-gods. I asked one of the crewmen how often he came out here to do this trip. 

“Almost every day.” 

“Oh, so I suppose it isn’t so exciting for you to see the same animal all the time."

"Nah, it's always pretty special. They're cool animals, you know? Plus sometimes you see sharks, turtles, manta rays, it changes day to day."

"Is there anything you'd rather be doing if not this?"

"Uh.. sleeping probably."

I spotted some turtles while we waited for a dugong to arrive, but in trying to get my phone for a photo, I missed them. Fortunately, I didn’t miss the dugong! One arrived a little distance from the boat, so everyone jumped in and began swimming furiously to catch up with it. Some were more furious than others, but in any case I was going nowhere fast without flippers and trailed far behind. Nicole tried to drag me along while I held on to her lifejacket (which she did not wear again), but in the end both of us were helped by a member of the boat crew who swam forward as we held onto the life ring (that more of an oval shape). Once we did finally get ot the dugong, since I didn’t have any goggles, I could only see a blurry grey lump on the seafloor when I dived under. Even though the salt water didn’t sting, I was fully prepared for a disappointment of my own making. Until, suddenly, the same crew member offered me his pair of goggles too! 

Thus, I was able to watch the animal after all. Dugongs are weird creatures. They are larger than I expected, at what must have been around 2 ½ metres, my best guess. It blew up small puffs of sediment as it harvested the small seagrass and looked as if it barely moved at all to properly forward. It was also exceedingly docile, entirely unconcerned with the free divers speeding after it. I was fortunate to get near when it surfaced for air. I was maybe a metre away, close enough to get a good look at its funny face. Their mouth faces downwards, and they have friendly eyes, so it's easy to imagine them as happy innocent animals just going about their day. Do they even have predators?  

[‘They have four natural predators, although... crocodiles, killer whales, and sharks pose a threat to the young’ - Lawler et al.; 2002] 

We were recommended not to wear sun cream before seeing them as it would negatively affect them. They never actually clarified why, but this would come back to haunt me in a huge way soon enough. 


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