Author: Anton de Vries
Photographer: Agnes Nyhof
In May my girlfriend Agnes and I took the PADI Dugong Appreciation Distinctive Speciality Course at Emperor Divers in Port Ghalib. In the morning we had the theoretical part of the course in which we learned a lot about the dugong species; about how best to search for it, about how to approach it when you find it and about the data gathering of dugong sightings by Emperor Divers. It was a nice informal session and you could tell our instructor Luke really enjoyed showing the presentation.
After the theory-session we had two dives at Marsa Mubarak in which we put what we learned into practice. We searched on the surface with the speedboat for the Dugong but we were not able to find it at first. During the two dives we saw a lot of turtles on which we practiced approaching big marine life in a sensitive way. It was really great to be able to get so close to a turtle without scaring it away!
After the dives we searched a little more on the surface for the dugong and this time we found him! We could see the dugong from the boat breathing at the surface, and Agnes and I went in with snorkelling gear but we lost track of him in the waves. Something we learned was that we should never take the boat too close to the dugong, and so this means entering the water further away - more of a gamble but it ensures the dugong does not get stressed by our presence.
The course made us confident that we could search by ourselves though and so we gave it a try later in the week at Marsa Shouna. Before both dives we did a surface search with a zodiac. We had two great dives on the seagrass, on the first dive alone we spotted five turtles! We had a great day, although there was no sign of a dugong today.
On the last day of our holiday we went again to Marsa Mubarak - this was our last chance! The first dive that day everything went wrong: our zodiac search was too fast, we hadn't agreed on a proper search and I came out of the water pretty frustrated but luckily Agnes was a little more calm than me. She immediately started talking to the dive guide and crew to make sure the zodiac driver knew what we wanted to do differently this time, and we worked out a new search pattern.
Before the second dive the surface search went a lot better but we were just getting to the point where we were about to switch to our underwater search. We decided on making one last circuit of the bay - and there he was! Agnes and I went in quickly but silently and started swimming in the direction we had last seen the dugong...we lost track of it again! But at least we had a good start point for our underwater search so on went the SCUBA gear.
It was pretty deep seagrass so we were getting close to our no deco time and thinking it might not happen this year, but Agnes spotted the dugong feeding in the distance. We went close slowly and could make some pictures before the dugong went up for air. We had to shallow up according to our profile so we moved to 10 meters. Here we could watch the dugong from above grazing on the seabed below us. The dugong then surfaced for air again and we lost sight of him - we were both very happy to have dived with him but we wanted just that little bit more. We had to start our safety stop though; the search was over. One minute left of our stop and the dugong just came swimming by once more - fantastic! It was really just looking at us, checking us out, a really close encounter. After we climbed back into the zodiac the dugong was still in the area, quite close, so we watched him for a little bit longer before we decided to leave him alone.
The things we had learned in the course really helped us to find the dugong in the end, and made sure that not only did we not stress the animal, but he was so relaxed about us that in the end he came to see us! Having a nice encounter with this gentle creature really was the highlight of our holiday.