The sea creature is known to have the lethargic stealth of a water buffalo
Elrika D’Souza froze with fear when she saw the enormous dugong looming over her. The marine biologist had been swimming over a seagrass bed in Havelock, Andaman Islands, engrossed in looking for signs of the animal. Some grasses looked like they had been cropped by an underwater grazing cow. Suddenly there it was, not even two metres away.
Rarely are size and fear the first impressions of dugongs, at least not for those who see the benevolent mammals from the safety of a boat. To ancient mariners, they were eerily human-like mermaids. The sea creature is known to attack nothing but seagrass with the lethargic stealth of a water buffalo.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” recalled D’Souza. “It was a wild animal after all. What would it have done if it felt cornered?”
Taking a breath, the dugong dived, pumping its tail up and down like a dolphin. It was wary of the human in the water but showed no sign of being alarmed. Dugong and D’Souza spent the whole day in the water watching each other even as one couldn’t stop stuffing its face.
It’s not often that one’s first encounter with an uncommon animal lasts that long. The next day, D’Souza stood on the beach, watching the calm sea surface for Alpha’s snout to stick out and take a sharp breath of air. Once she located it, she swam out and spent the day observing what it did — continually grazing. It repeated the same behaviour not only the day after but also every day for a fortnight. Instead of naming the young male for his gluttony, she chose the neutral Alpha. Then it was time to move on. She was doing a pilot study of dugongs across the island chain, and there were many seagrass beds to cover and more dugongs to encounter.
As a teenager, D’Souza had set her heart on becoming a marine biologist, but she hadn’t planned to study mammals like dugongs. She wanted to research the elusive and mythical coelacanth, a fish found alive after scientists thought it had gone extinct millions of years ago.
D’Souza didn’t go to the islands to study the enigmatic fish since none has been found there. She went in 2005 to assess the status of coral reefs after the tsunami. When divers and fishermen talked about this huge, mysterious underwater animal that surfaced to breathe air, she was fascinated. She didn’t know that dugongs lived in those waters or that nobody had studied them in the Andamans. She went back after two years to fill that gap.
D’Souza swam for days around the seagrass beds where divers and fishermen said they had seen dugongs before her sudden unexpected meeting with Alpha. Then she went to Neil Island, where she met Luna.
Unlike Alpha, Luna, named for a crescent-shaped scar, was curious and bold. It followed D’Souza but maintained its distance. If she changed direction, so did the dugong. This one quickly became D’Souza’s favourite, but she was careful not to take liberties with the wild animal. She thought its familiarity with divers and snorkellers accounted for its inquisitiveness. Over the following 15 days, she observed its behaviour. If Alpha spent all his time grazing, Luna relaxed and slept.
Most of the other dugongs, however, were not such clearly recognisable individuals. They disappeared in a swirl of water as soon as they spotted the boat. But that didn’t hamper D’Souza. She found other ways of studying the shy creatures. Working with a network of divers and fishermen, she estimated the total population of dugongs in the entire island chain to be 22. She missed several areas such as the Jarawa Tribal Reserve, so she acknowledges the number is an underestimate. The low number might seem shocking, but the waters around the islands never teemed with dugongs historically. The small and scattered beds of seagrass ensured that.
While interviewing fishermen, D’Souza occasionally heard one admit to hunting dugongs for its tasty meat. Rather than become emotional, she appealed to them with facts. “We can eat something else,” she said. “But if we eat even one of them, it affects their [already low] population.” When they learned young dugongs needed their mothers for 18 months before they could survive on their own, they were touched.
Entanglements were another problem. D’Souza had seen two dugongs around North Andaman that disappeared, victims of accidental drowning in fishing nets. She encouraged fishermen to release any that got tangled in their gear and to slow the speed of their crafts when dugongs were nearby.
Despite being surrounded by the sea, most children in the Andamans hadn’t seen the creature. She showed them photographs and films, and talked about the animal with “the body of a dolphin and the face of a pig” that has a calf only once in five to seven years. D’Souza hopes to share her fascination for dugongs and perhaps turn people into their guardians.
How does she maintain hope when the marine mammal’s numbers are so low? D’Souza says although they are slow breeders, she’s seen three pairs of mothers and calves. “It shows the [Andaman] population is not isolated and that gives me a lot of hope.”
First published by The Hindu on 22 Dec. 2018