THE call of the sirens over the raging seas has been the basis of many mystical stories in days long past. Tales of mermaids that lured unsuspecting sailors to their watery deaths; stories of women who fled evil in-laws and jumped into the sea, turning into creatures that lurked within the watery depths of the undulating seas…
In 1493, Christopher Columbus recorded sightings of “mermaids” at what’s now the Dominican Republic, in the Voyages of Columbus: “On the previous day (Jan 8, 1493), when the Admiral went to Rio del Oro (Haiti), he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.”
The mysterious animals that inspired tales of sirens and mermaids, stories of hapless women turning into sea-creatures are the manatees and dugongs that come from the order sirenia — a name reminiscent of mystical mermaids. They’re both known to rise out of the waters like the mystical sirens in folklore, thus inspiring many of the original mermaid tales.
In the case of Columbus, he would have more than likely to have spotted manatees. After all, with forelimbs containing fingerlike bones and neck vertebrae that allow them to turn their heads, it’s easy to mistake manatees or dugongs for the mystical half-human/half sea-creature from afar.
Mistaking these slow-moving ponderous creatures for those beautiful fish-tailed maidens seems incongruous, yet the tales surrounding dugongs and manatees continue to exist through centuries. In Japan, people have regarded dugongs as messengers of sea gods. In West Africa, Mami Wata — as the manatee is known in that part of the world — is also referred as a female water spirit, often depicted as a woman with the tail of a fish.
In the Pacific nation of Palau, the dugong plays a central role in traditional ceremony and lore. Tales of young women transformed into these gentle grazers endure and wooden storyboard carvings illustrate dugongs aiding fishermen lost at sea. Aboriginal tribal artists drew a dugong in Western Australia as part of a “great fish chase” around 8,000 years ago. Closer to home, back in 1959, 5,000-year-old cave drawings depicting dugongs were discovered in Malaysia’s Tambun Cave.
In a world saturated with mermaid stories and legends, mythical mermaids and sirens feel a lot more familiar than the actual reclusive sea-creatures that inhabit our waters. Not much is really known, according to Fairul Izmal Jamal Hisne, marine biologist and co-founder of MareCet — a non-profit, non-governmental organisation dedicated to the research and conservation of marine mammals in Malaysia — about the dugong population that resides in our Malaysian waters.
MareCet is currently lobbying for a dugong sanctuary to be established in Johor in order to safeguard the dwindling population of these sea creatures in Peninsular Malaysia. “We estimate that we have less than a hundred dugongs left in our waters. Just like our rhinoceros, tigers and pangolins, we can’t afford to allow yet another of our wildlife to slip into extinction,” he stresses. Dugongs, he adds, are also found in Sabah, where they’re recorded around Mantanani, Bangi and Mengalum Islands, and in Sarawak, in the waters of Brunei Bay, Lawas. However, he says they have yet to estimate the populations in those areas.
CLOSER LOOK AT DUGONGS
Sirenian, an order of aquatic mammals, includes three species of manatees and the dugong. These comprise the West Indian manatee, the Amazonian manatee, the West African manatee and the dugong. One species, the Stellar’s sea cow, was hunted to extinction back in the 18th century.
Both manatees and dugongs are affectionately dubbed “sea cows” because they’re voracious grass eaters. In Malay however, the word dugong is translated to the “lady of the sea”. But the dugong looks anything but like a lady, with its names “sea cow” or “sea pig” pointing to its less than elegant looks.
Ungainly, the dugong is a bulbous creature with a flattened fluked tail made up of two separate lobes joined together in the middle. The snout of the dugong is broad, short and trunk-like, facing downwards with a slit for a mouth, useful for feeding off the ocean floor. The dugongs have relatively poor eyesight so they rely on the sensitive bristles covering their upper lip of their large snouts to find food.
The dugongs spend their entire lives in shallow, sheltered coastal areas such as bays and mangrove swamps with high concentrations of sea grass. They’re strictly herbivorous animals, and voracious eaters of seagrass. It’s said that a dugong can consume up to 40 kg of seagrass per day!
In Peninsular Malaysia, dugongs are largely found in the southern state of Johor, historically in Sungai Johor and Sungai Pulai as well as the Mersing islands. The highest concentrations of dugongs are located where there’s presence of seagrass meadows, and the species of seagrass that’s consumed extensively by dugongs are found in these areas off Johor. Seagrass meadows, points out Fairul, are a natural habitat for dugong, sea turtles and other sea creatures.
Seagrasses are a group of flowering plants submerged in shallow marine environments with low turbidity. Globally, there are around 60 known species of seagrasses, distributed mainly along temperate and tropical coastlines. It’s believed that Johor is home to at least 12 species of seagrasses.
Seagrasses occupy less than 0.2 percent of the world’s oceans and account for more than 10 per cent of all the carbon trapped in the sea. “Seagrass ecosystems are just as critical to coastal fisheries as coral reefs, if not more,” shares Fairul adding that adding that seagrass ecosystems also provide vital ecosystem services such as maintaining water quality, stabilising the seabed, and as natural coastal protection.
THREATS TO DUGONGS
While there’s relatively little known about dugong populations in Malaysia, ongoing research, says Fairul, will hopefully change that. MareCet had embarked on dugong research not long after a rapid aerial survey conducted in the Sibu-Tinggi Archipelago off Johor’s east coast in 2010 identified the area as a potential critical habitat for dugong population in Peninsular Malaysia.
Awareness of dugong presence in our waters remains low, admits Fairul, adding that the significance of these gentle creatures and its relationship with seagrass distribution, is poorly understood. Assessing the status of dugongs, he says, is problematic because of the difficulty in monitoring these creatures which often remain underwater for long periods in turbid waters at remote areas.
“The overall lack of information has led to the health of seagrass ecosystem in our waters often being overlooked,” he laments, pointing out that local population of dugongs have also dwindled as a result.
While mermaids and sirens hold much of our attention, their real-life doubles are left struggling in the sea. These creatures are easily injured or killed due to their large sizes and slow gait, making them vulnerable to strikes by propellers of motorboats and ships. They’re usually slow swimmers and must surface to breathe every three to 12 minutes, making it difficult for them to avoid fast-approaching boats.
Dugongs tend to get caught as incidental by-catch in illegal long-line gear used to target rays as well as in gill nets. Other threats include destructive fishing practices in coastal waters and hunting for dugongs which is less common these days. Manmade threats and vanishing seagrass beds are accelerating a critical loss of habitat and threatening populations of this gentle sea-cow.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List has listed these mammals as vulnerable, but this global assessment doesn’t actually paint a clear picture on the urgent need to protect these animals in our shores.
“While there are predominantly two large dugong populations in Australia and the Arabian seas, pockets of smaller populations exist in other areas. In Peninsular Malaysia, we have less than 100 of these mammals left,” reiterates Fairul. According to him, we’ve lost at least 17 of them in the last two to three years. “That’s more than 10 per cent of the current population estimate,” he says.
In Peninsular Malaysia, dugongs are protected under the Fisheries Act 1985 Part VI and the Fisheries (Control of Endangered Species of Fish) Regulations 1999. The Department of Fisheries formulated a National Plan of Action for Dugongs in 2011 to protect, conserve and manage dugongs and their habitats.
Additionally, Malaysia is committed to the Convention on Biological Diversity, with a target of having 10 per cent of its marine environment protected by 2020, particularly areas that are important for threatened species.
To date however, about 1 per cent of Malaysia’s marine area is protected. Seagrasses are protected only in areas where they fall within marine parks, but they’re now mentioned in the revised National Policy on Biological Diversity. “Dugong ‘hotspots’ where groups of 30 to 40 animals have been seen to congregate were identified, and these areas fall outside of the existing marine park borders,” he says. “These areas aren’t protected.”
HELP IN SIGHT
MareCet’s research project is aligned with the National Plan of Action for dugongs focusing at the Johor Mersing islands by working together with local communities, fishermen, tourism operators as well as state and federal government agencies. There must be concerted action taken to ensure that these creatures are not wiped out from our shores, asserts Fairul.
The marine mammal conservation organisation has banded together with both local and foreign universities, researchers and volunteers to conduct surveys, analyse data, and provide much-needed information to policy and decision-makers at State and Federal agencies. “There were memorable moments,” recalls Fairul. “Our team encountered a dugong calf while collecting seagrass samples underwater. The calf eventually swam back to its mother as they watched in wonder.”
The dugong, he stresses, is an important part of the marine environment; its success acting as a bellwether for the overall marine ecosystem. It’s the lack of awareness on seagrass ecosystems and their importance that has made this particular ecology of little concern for communities and decision makers. This has in turn, negatively impacted the survival of dugongs.
The research aims to change that. Community awareness, engagement, and education are part of MareCet’s aim to combat ignorance, says Fairul. “In consultation with government agencies, local communities and other stakeholders, we’ve prepared a proposal to establish a dugong sanctuary in Johor,” he reveals, adding that they’re currently lobbying for the Federal Government to push this agenda forward. The situation, however, is critical for something to be done.
While the Mersing islands host the most significant congregation of dugongs in Peninsular Malaysia, these areas are, however, affected by vessel traffic, trawl fishing as well as agricultural plantations and mixed coastal developments. These have been known to cause habitat degradation and water pollution which can affect seagrass meadows and endanger marine life. “Sustainable long-term habitats for dugongs in Peninsular Malaysia may be lost if urgent steps aren’t taken,” he says.
As policy makers mull over the establishment of such a sanctuary, the work has to go on. Asserts Fairul: “Local awareness needs to be built, research into these creatures as well as the ecosystem they thrive in needs to continue and more viable data needs to be collected in order for us to address the information gaps that exist.”
Conservation is everyone’s responsibility. We can join forces to prevent our mermaids from becoming a myth, concludes Fairul. In the words of marine biologist Carleton Ray during the First World Conference of National Parks in 1962: “If we don’t think of the planet as one — earth and water — who will? If we don’t press for marine as well as terrestrial sanctuaries, and for regulations over our marine activities, then I ask again, who will?”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Environmental Resources Management (ERM) is currently supporting MareCet to help raise awareness on marine conversation issues to schools as well as helping to raise funds for MareCet to continue her operations. To donate, go to www.simplygiving.com/event/ermfoundationmalaysiaformarecet.