Rudy Mattahari playing with Nicky in waters off Pulau Mantanani in 2007.

KOTA KINABALU: Nowadays, one needs luck to spot dugongs in the wild, let alone play and swim with them. Their sightings are rarely, if at all, reported.

But two years ago, a group of tourists had Lady Luck on their side when they came across a dugong swimming beside their boat.

The tourists, who were guests of the Try Scuba Sdn Bhd dive company, were headed towards Pulau Kalampunian Damit and Pulau Besar Kalampunian when the dugong made a surprise appearance.

“I’ve not seen a dugong for a long time after my first encounter with one at Pulau Mantanani between 2005 and 2007. So, to see it after over 10 years and in an area you least expect it, is remarkable,” said company owner Rudy Mattahari, 51.

“The sighting occurred in late February 2017. Two months later, it was sighted in a seagrass bed area, which is a little further from a fishing village. Usually, my staff would inform me if they see one but last year, there were zero sightings.”

The islands are two of three islands within the protected Tiga Island Park off Kuala Penyu. The other island is Pulau Tiga.

Prior to his encounter, Mattahari, who has 28 years’ experience in scuba diving, said a dugong was also sighted near Pulau Tiga in late January 2017.

“We don’t know whether it was the same dugong, but it goes to show that the waters off Pulau Tiga is potentially rich with seagrass. It was an amazing encounter because most of the people have never seen a dugong in the area. It brings back memories of when I was working with a dive company on Pulau Mantanani off Kota Belud, several years ago. There was a friendly male dugong and it always swam or waited near the jetty to greet us.”

Between 2005 and 2007, Mattahari formed a bond with the dugong, which he called Nicky. He said Nicky was so friendly that resort guests and islanders could easily approach it, play with it, and take photos.

“Whenever I guided divers, Nicky would wait at the jetty and wanted to join us. It responded to me each time I made a sound and signalled at it. There were several occasions where it dove alongside us. It never disturbed or caused harm to anyone. Once, after resurfacing from a dive, Nicky cheekily hugged a diver from behind. She did not realise it because she had a dive tank. We laughed and photos were taken. She was one lucky diver and I hope they still keep the pictures as remembrance.”

He said Nicky got his name from a Japanese couple, adding that it had scars on one of its pectoral fins as a result of being hit by a boat engine.

Mantanani islanders, who are mostly Bajau Ubian, treated it as their pet and would protect it from fishermen not from the island, he added.

“They never tried to catch it or kill it. However, after I left Pulau Mantanani, Nicky went missing. Villagers said they saw Nicky several times before it disappeared. I suspected it was caught by outsiders. Dugongs are easy to catch as they tend to rest under vessels,” said Mattahari, adding that islanders, particularly the Bajau would hunt dugongs for their meat.

“At Pulau Mantanani, you can’t see them in the wild anymore. I did come across a Facebook post in 2017 about a dead dugong washed ashore on an island village off Kota Belud. This means they can still be found there.”

He hoped researchers would do more studies on dugongs in Sabah waters, especially with the latest sightings at Pulau Tiga, to further protect the animal.