Dear dugongs

Th­ese gen­tle crea­tures are a na­tional trea­sure and act as an um­brella species to con­serve the habi­tat where they live.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By AN­DREW SIA star2­green@thes­

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.”

Pa­tri­otic duty

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.

Robin­son Cru­soe

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 – fo­cussed 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.

— Filepic

A diver get­ting close to a dugong at an is­land off Kota Belud, Sabah.

Af­fendi is off on his round-is­land kayak sur­vey.

Please save us, this dugong at Man­tanani is­land, Sabah, seems to say. — SAM­SON WONG

Look­ing out for dugongs from the boat.

Ooi and Af­fendi plan to spend at least six months on Pu­lau Sibu Kukus to mon­i­tor dugongs, sea­grass and corals in the sur­round­ing seas.

The hill at Pu­lau Sibu Kukus of­fers a glo­ri­ous view of the sur­round­ing seas. — Pho­tos: AN­DREW SIA/The Star

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