Tag Archives: dugong

Some reef encounters captured in blink of eye

Published November 26, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

One of the pleasures of being home after an adventure is sorting photos of the trip. But as I go through pictures of my recent sailing trip in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, I’m also enjoying the images my mind took when it was too dark or too distant to shoot, or when I didn’t feel like looking at something marvelous through a lens.

One late afternoon, after sailing all day, the weather took a turn, and we raced for shelter in a mainland waterway called Island Head Creek. As our boat turned the corner of the large island protecting the creek’s entrance, the world, like magic, changed from screaming wind and bucking boat into flat, calm silence.

Craig dropped the anchor, and we stood on the deck watching herons, cormorants and other water birds hunt for fish.

“Look!” Craig said, “A crocodile!”

The estuaries along the northern Queensland coast are famous for salties. But no. When the brown back Craig had seen reappeared, the creature also raised its head to take a breath. It was a dugong.

Dugongs are the Southern Hemisphere’s version of the manatee, both called sea cows and both endangered species. Like manatees, dugongs are slow, harmless vegetarians that graze on sea grasses in tropical creeks, rivers and estuaries.

When another of these rare marine mammals appeared on the other side of the boat, we watched the two pop up for air and dive down for food for a glorious half-hour. In the meantime the setting sun turned the water pink, then orange, then dark red. Island Head Creek — a dugong sanctuary, we later learned — became one of our favorite anchorages.

Another series of events I downloaded in brain only were endless flocks of shearwaters and black noddies. Soon after I wrote that I missed seeing flocks of seabirds at sea, we sailed to what’s known as the Bunker Group, the line of atolls that form the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. The Bunkers’ coral reefs encircle sandy, wooded islands where black noddies build nests in trees and wedge-tailed shearwaters dig burrows for their eggs and chicks.

Near these outer reefs and islands, the water swarmed with seabirds, the shearwaters riding the air currents above the waves, and both species gathering in thousand-bird feeding frenzies, called bird piles in Hawaii, over schools of small fish.

Usually when one of us spots a bird pile, we point it out to the other. Not in the Bunkers. The birds were so abundant that we just sat in the cockpit, marveling in silence as Honu sailed through the feathered masses.

Near the end of the trip, three bottlenose dolphins came rushing to Honu to ride its bow wave. I made my way to the bow, purposely leaving the camera in the cockpit. I wanted to look at the dolphins the way they look at me. And it happened. As I looked down, a dolphin turned on its side to look up. Eye to eye, we shared a moment.

In this age when the phone I carry in my pocket is a camera as well, I often feel compelled to take pictures of everything that happens. No need. Without photos my experiences are as bright and animated in my memory as if I were watching a video. Fortunately, my senses record in high def.

Rescued dugongs thrive with help from aquarium

PublishedOctober 13, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

An excited child reaches toward Wuru, a dugong. ©2014 Susan Scott

Signal Island, New Caledonia » As Craig and I sit on Honu in this marine preserve teeming with fish, snails and sea snakes, I only have eyes for dugongs.

That’s partly because I had glimpses of two dugongs while anchored near here last spring, so I know they’re in the vicinity. I’m also freshly enamored with the South Pacific’s sea cows because I recently met two at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium.

It happened when our immigration documents got mixed up and we had to spend an unexpected day in Sydney. As we arranged for an airport hotel, an ad caught my eye: “VISIT DUGONG ISLAND.”

That’s all it took. We dropped our luggage and boarded the train to the aquarium in Sydney’s Darling Harbor. There, visitors walk through clear tubes while tropical fish swim above, below and around them. The fish were mesmerizing, but dugongs Pig and Wuru, rescued separately along the Queensland coast, stole my heart.

Dugong face

In 1998, Pig, a male, was found as a week-old orphan who would have died without human help. After being hand-raised for three years, Pig was deemed healthy and released him back to the ocean. Eight months later people found poor Pig emaciated and wounded by other male dugongs. His second rescue was for life.

Because Sydney’s water is too cold for these tropical mammals, Pig lives with other warm-water creatures in an enormous heated tank the facility calls its Oceanarium.

Wuru’s story is similar. In 2005, at a month old, she too lost her mother. Human helpers nursed Wuru to adulthood in the Oceanarium, where she and Pig are now stars, loved by staff and visitors alike. Judging by the animals’ curious and playful behavior toward people, it appears the feeling is mutual.


Dugongs eat only sea grass in the wild, and in their aquarium home they eat only romaine, the nutritional equivalent of sea grass. Sea grass and lettuce are so low in calories that the animals eat 12 hours a day.

Four workers do nothing else but put romaine leaves in special trays and lower them to the Oceanarium floor every 10 to 15 minutes. Together, the two dugongs eat 176 to 265 pounds of lettuce per day, coming up for breaths of air every 3 to 12 minutes.

I watched the friendly sea cows eat and play (Pig prefers a soft, orange traffic cone; Wuru has a boogie board she likes to push around) for 30 minutes, feeling enormously privileged to see dugongs up close for as long as I liked.

Now, as we wait on our sailboat for a good weather window to shove off for Australia, I have dugongs on my mind.

I’m happy that Pig and Wuru’s rescues ended well and also that I goofed up our New Caledonia paperwork.

It’s the best flight I ever missed.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott