Douglas & Dugong; the Making of a Cover Story
by Luke Atkinson, Marsa Alam Dive Centre Manager
It all started with a Bintang. Gary Ball, the previous manager of Emperor Divers Marsa Alam had been talking to a photojournalist over a glass of the local beer in Lembeh Cottages, Indonesia, who had been struggling to photograph dugongs in the wild. Gary knew of my own particular struggles with the local specimens of Marsa Alam, and also the fact that I had managed to learn enough about the whereabouts and habits of one individual that I had created a PADI Speciality all about him. He put us in touch. 5,000 emails and one revolution later, it was on – Douglas D Seifert, veteran American columnist from Dive magazine was coming over, and I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
I should have seen it coming really. One question posed by Douglas in our mammoth correspondence was “If I want to be sure of seeing the dugong, how many days should I look at being there?” to which I replied, “No guarantees, but two or three days should be enough.” Douglas booked 10. What the heck was I going to do with this guy for 10 days? No problem – we’ll send him on all our special trips like Elphinstone, and we’ll have him dive the housereef, and he can create a really nice article about Marsa Alam diving in general to bulk up his dugong story. I couldn’t have been more off the mark.
D-day (well, DDS-day) arrived and I met Douglas at the service entrance of our dive centre after he had been on a gruelling 30 hour trip from Canada to Marsa Alam via the Middle East and Luxor. Stepping out of a black car with tinted windows, adorned with long blonde hair and sunglasses, along with a jetlag induced stagger and frown that meant he looked more like a drunken rock star than a journalist; the plan to dive the housereef was aborted. Douglas would go for a much needed sleep after checking in at the Resta Grand and we would meet the next morning to begin the dugong adventure.
I waited at the marina in the heat of the summer morning. I’m a photographer too and so I took along my new camera – a Canon 7D in a Nauticam housing. Feeling pretty pleased with myself for having quite a smart piece of kit I watched as Douglas stepped out of the transfer bus with his kit. Americans do everything bigger and this was no exception as Douglas pulled three (three!) enormous cameras from the front seats of the bus, finally releasing the trapped guests who had had to cram into the back to make way for the aluminium VIPs. “Why three cameras Douglas?” I asked. I just got a wry smile in return.
We left before all the other boats on our fast RIB and zoomed to the nearest bay South, Marsa Mubarak (also called Marsa Imbarak and Umm el Roos) to begin the search. Mubarak is the hotspot for our local dugong named Dyson, but he has a wicked sense of humour and has occasionally let me down on the big occasions. As a consequence I was a bit nervous after seeing how much effort Douglas had gone to, not only to fly over but also to grease so many o-rings that morning; early conversation was limited to awkward small-talk. We started the search like every other morning search – from outside to inside to keep the sun on our backs and glare to a minimum. Slowly weaving across the bay, everything starts to look like a dugong. dugong shaped turtles, dugong shaped bin liners (duly retrieved) and dugong shaped sun-kissed waves all appeared in the first 45 minutes, but no dugong shaped dugongs until…the back breached and the unmistakeable snorts came from two large nostrils. A fluked tail showed he had dived to continue feeding and I didn’t want to lose him, the pressure was still on. I grabbed a mask, fins and snorkel and slowly slid from the boat to keep our presence as secret as possible. Luckily the visibility was excellent and I found him fairly quickly. I was relieved as I saw Douglas had followed me on SCUBA and was now descending towards Dyson. I had my kit and camera passed to me and joined my buddy quickly, patient as I allowed Douglas to click away, taking the odd snapshot of Douglas in his camouflage wetsuit working the angles on Dyson. We had such a quality time with him that both of us came away with some nice images and beaming smiles. The ice was well and truly broken.
We took lunch and some respite from the midday sun on a nearby Emperor day boat. “How was that?” I asked, “Fantastic” came the reply. “What do you want to do this afternoon then?” thinking perhaps a nice reef dive would be in order. “I think we’ll look for the dugong again,” he said calmly. ”Ok and tomorrow?” thinking perhaps the housereef. “Dugong.” There were days where bottlenose dolphins or green turtles made for a brief distraction but Douglas was committed, almost addicted. It didn’t seem to matter how many minutes he would spend with Dyson, more was wanted. We would swim with it for hours if we could, search for it for longer if we had to. Dive guides Tarkan and Kathrin had some of the longest days and swims, but each and every day Dyson would be spotted and photographed and each and every day, barring one enforced trip to Elphinstone, the next day’s plan was “Dugong”.
Diving and snorkelling for long periods with dugongs has a magical quality and Douglas is not the first person I have seen to be enthralled by Dyson. As the days went on everybody associated with the adventure seemed energised. Despite long hours in the sun and sea, evenings became livelier and everyone became much closer. Stories and photos were shared, good food was eaten and many Sakkaras were downed. The article was starting to move in a different direction as it became clear that this animal was a treasure, and needed some help and protection to ensure its long term presence in Marsa Alam. With the help of Douglas’ contacts built up through decades in the industry and the local figures I could provide, he hoped to put an economic value on Dyson to see if that could help effect real change. It was great to watch someone who has dived all over the world and seen so many wonderful things be profoundly affected in such a positive way and I can’t do better than to quote the man himself from an email he sent on his return “…I have a permanent smile affixed which broadens as I think about the days under the bright Egyptian sun zipping over blue seas in search of turtles, dolphins and a dugong. I truly have never had a more enjoyable assignment.”
I learned more than a thing or two. I have never worked with someone so committed or prepared. Why three cameras? Leaking strobes and poor battery charges would have made the perfect image unattainable at times if not. Why 10 days looking for Dyson when we found him each and every day? Look at the photos in the article and read through the dives, the experiences and the stories penned there, all perfect and the article would have been worse off without any one of them. The hard work paid off, no one was tired because of it; on the contrary we were all buzzing for days, if not weeks, afterwards.
Some fantastic dives, some great times and some lifelong friends made it all more than worthwhile. And when you see the finished article and you realise that you played a part, well that’s just the icing on the cake. It remains to be seen just how much longer it will take to establish and enforce a code of conduct, but one thing is certain – Dyson is here right now and we want to keep him around for as long as possible to keep us all smiling.