Our hunt for dugongs began at 6am. The air was heavy with salt and darkness as I trudged sleepily from the village homestay to the jetty.
I was on Pulau Tinggi, one of several islands off eastern Johor, with two marine scientists; and we were going to chug along in a large wooden fishing boat to Pulau Sibu Kukus, 45 minutes away.
Last October, seagrass expert Dr Jillian Ooi and coral reef ecologist Affendi Yang Amri, both from Universiti Malaya (UM), had accidentally discovered that a group of dugongs were regularly frolicking on the surface of the sea at dawn near Sibu Kukus, a small rocky island near the larger Pulau Sibu Besar. Would we see them again this year?
Why care for dugongs?
Our underwater buddies may be helping to ensure we have lots of seafood.
This is because dugongs are like the “cows of the sea” – they are marine mammals (like dolphins and whales) which feed mainly on seagrass.
While feeding, they are also “cultivating” large underwater beds of seagrass by recycling nutrients as they uproot whole plants to feed on them. An adult dugong can consume about 30kg of seagrass a day. Constant “trimming or pruning” by dugongs encourages the regeneration of more seagrass. The mammals’ faeces also act as fertiliser.
But why should the average Malaysian care about all that?
Research by Affendi and Ooi shows that there are six times more juvenile fish in seagrasses than in adjacent coral reefs. In contrast, coral reefs have five times more adult fish than the seagrass areas.
Their hypothesis is that seagrass meadows are probably a nursery and feeding ground for many juvenile fish, which then move over to coral reefs when they become adults.
In addition, seagrass also filters out pollutants and bacteria that bring disease, thus creating healthier environments for coral reefs.
“Both kinds of habitat are important for the marine environment. We can’t just protect coral reefs without also protecting seagrass,” summed up Ooi. She explained that seagrass does not always occur near coral reefs, but Johor is lucky to have both types of habitat close to each other.
“Dugongs are like ecosystem engineers,” she explained. “If the dugongs become extinct, what would this mean for the seagrass meadow? We are not sure yet, but the meadow could be affected in a way that fish, crabs, squid and prawns that depend on it could also decline. This would hurt our source of seafood and the livelihood of Johor fishermen.”
But do we really need to justify protecting dugongs based on how much seafood and profit we can extract from the sea? What about basic human compassion for these loveable gentle giants?
Isn’t it our patriotic duty to protect our national living heritage?
If Africa is proud of its giraffes, lions and hippos, shouldn’t we be proud of our dugongs? Sure, neighbouring Singapore may have its famous zoo and aquariums, but Johor has the real thing in the wild!
“It’s a matter of national pride that Malaysia has a wealth of wildlife,” said Ooi.
“Every species should matter to us, especially one as iconic as the dugong.”
Johor happens to be blessed with two major areas of seagrass. There is one off Gelang Patah in southern Johor, but it has been damaged by land reclamation and other development work and the number of dugongs there have dropped.
Luckily, the second expanse of seagrass off eastern Johor is still largely intact. This will be the site of a proposed dugong sanctuary including all islands from Pulau Rawa (in the north) to the Pulau Sibu groups of islands (in the south). It will also stretch right up to the mainland in Mersing.
Media reports have noted that it will soon be gazetted as the Sultan Iskandar Marine Park – that would be a royally fitting way to conserve and celebrate our marine heritage.
So there I was, in a wooden fishing boat off tiny Pulau Sibu Kukus. By now, I was fully energised by the chilly winds of our boat trip just as the first rays of the morning sun peeked out of the horizon.
“Sssshhhhh,” Affendi reminded us – dugongs are very sensitive to noise and we didn’t want to scare any away.
Everyone – including Ooi, Affendi, five other research assistants and the boat crew – focused their eyes or binoculars on the calm morning sea.
Suddenly, there was a little splash, but no … it was a sea turtle coming up to catch its breath before diving back down. We kept scouring and scanning the sea with laser-like attention … hmmm, were those just little waves in the distance? Or the faint marks of dugong activity? But after an hour, we only saw more turtles.
“We know the dugongs are around because we’ve seen their feeding trails in the seagrass,” explained Ooi.
“But we are not sure why they are not surfacing at dawn like last year. Had the last monsoon season changed the dugongs’ habits? We need to do more research.”
In fact, Ooi and Affendi plan to become like Robinson Crusoe “hermits” for at least six months on Pulau Sibu Kukus to monitor dugongs, seagrass and corals in the surrounding seas.
To this end, they surveyed the only (tiny) beach on the island to see where they could set up work and sleep areas, a kitchen and that most crucial thing – a toilet.
“Well, luckily we’ve not seen any scorpions or centipedes here yet. Only kerengga ants (which have painful bites!),” smiled Affendi. “We also have to watch out for sea snakes that may return to the island at night.”
We then clambered up the slippery slopes of a small hill, to be rewarded with a glorious panorama of the surrounding seas and islands.
“From up here, we can constantly look out for dugongs,” quipped Affendi.
After the land survey, it was time for a marine survey. I had a chance to kayak round the small island (it took about 20 minutes) and could see how wild and rugged it was – most of it was rocky.
Then we all donned our masks and fins to snorkel among the seagrass.
“The seagrass has decreased compared to last year,” reported Ooi.
Before we left the island, we had one more spotting session from the boat. With every eye peeled and every ear opened, we waited … and soon enough, we saw little tell-tale splatters with our binoculars – the dugongs had showed up!
The kayak was promptly lowered into the sea and Affendi paddled out to have a closer look.
As for me, I was just savouring the scene from the boat, ah … this was the frontline of scientific research and conservation. Why, it was like being in a National Geographic episode!
Hopefully, the dugongs and seagrass will continue to be a national treasure.