This floating potato of the sea can grow to 3 metres in length and weigh in at a whopping half-tonne. Its striking character is derived from its tail, which has a passing resemblance to a spade, and its two smaller front flippers, looking like an afterthought of intelligent design. Its outer body is mostly comprised of fat, and upon further investigation, its surface has rough little pits that are populated with thick hairs. It also has, on its recognisable, bulbous head, a cleft or “fleshy” lip, which assists it with breathing. Their cumbersome size is a disadvantage when it comes to escaping predation from sharks, saltwater crocodiles and killer whales, however males have strong ivory tusks for defence, which are also employed in fracas between males over mates, and for the more civil exercise of uprooting seagrass, the principal diet of the dugong.
Dugongs are located in Australia’s shallow coastal Northern waters, stretching from WA to the Great Barrier Reef. Even though Australia is home to the largest remaining Dugong population in the world , their numbers are sadly in decline, with approx. 70,000 dugongs accounted for in the entirety of the North. The lowest recorded number was taken in 1991, where only 1700 were observed in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef. Their decimated populations mean that their otherwise gregarious living patterns, where they are known to swim in herds, has virtually disappeared. They can now be spotted in smaller, close-knit “family” groups.
The plight of the dugong has resulted in its classification as an endangered and protected species. It can only be hunted by Aborigines as part of their customary right to continue their traditional means of sustenance. Their declining numbers are attributed to the eradication of their primary diet, seagrass, from dredging, farm soil wash-off and pollution. Fatalities are also known to occur as a consequence of large-net fishing.
Although vulnerable to extinction because of its size, life span and slow rate of reproduction, conservation efforts have thankfully stabilised the populations of this effete and adorably manatee, with 10,000 inhabiting both Shark Bay in Western Australia and the Great Barrier Reef, the two most populated regions on the planet.