MARSA ALAM DUGONGS – FAQ
The dugong (sometimes spelled dugon) is a large marine mammal, sometimes called a “sea cow” because of its diet of sea grass. It lives in parts of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is similar to the Manatee, the main difference being that the latter can also be found in the estuaries of fresh water rivers.
The world population of dugongs is believed to be in decline and the species has disappeared altogether from many of its former known marine habitats near Cambodia, Hong Kong, Japan, Mauritius, Philippines and Japan.
IS THE SPECIES ENDANGERED ?
Since 1990 the dugong has been on the IUCN’s red list of threatened species as being considered “vulnerable” to extinction.
HOW LONG DOES A DUGONG LIVE ?
Around fifty years as an average. The oldest know Dugong lived 73 years.
HOW MANY LIVE IN THE RED SEA ?
In the 1980s the Red Sea dugong population was estimated at about 4000. However that number is probably now much smaller.
WHAT MAKES MARSA ALAM SPECIAL FOR THE DUGONG ?
The majority of Red Sea dugong sightings have been off the coast at Abu Dabbab, a sandy bottomed lagoon about 30km north of the town of Marsa Alam. Dugongs like this location because of the relative abundance of shallow coastal sea grass.
HOW MANY DUGONGS LIVE OFF MARSA ALAM ?
The dugong population is not large. Ten years ago there were just seven known dugongs reside along the entire 100km coastline between Marsa Alam and El Quseir while studies in 2017 and 2019 identified 30 individuals at 22 sites “with a male-female ratio of 7:1” (The Egyptian Journal of Aquatic Research). Abu Dabbab and the coastal waters of the Wadi El Gemal National Park are possibly the most likely places to see one.
ARE THEY THREATENED ?
Yes, herbicidal run off and pollution from some of the hotels in the Marsa Alam region may be reducing numbers. They are also at risk from fishing nets, boat propellers and some tourists who may inadvertently damage the marine habitat. Dugongs are also vulnerable to hunting since they live in relatively shallow water and are not scared of humans.
WHAT CONSERVATION MEASURES HAVE BEEN TAKEN ?
Boats are not allowed inside Abu Dabbab Bay and moorings have been removed to prevent overnight stays by safari boats. Some local sea grass areas are now off limits to divers and snorkellers, and all visitors are asked to avoid stepping on or touching the sea grass beds or reefs. Rangers regularly patrol Abu Dabbab Bay to enforce the environmental regulations.
WHAT DO DUGONGS EAT ?
Mostly sea grass. When they eat, they ingest the entire plant including the roots. They prefer to avoid the lush grass and concentrate their feeding on areas where the sea grass is more sparse. They favour grass high in nitrogen and low in fibre. The sea grass if of low nutritional value so the dugong has to eat vast amounts – up to 30kg in a single day. They use their flippers to “walk” along the seabed and shake their heads to remove some of the sand off the grass.
HOW BIG IS A DUGONG ?
An adult dugong usually weighs between 230 and 500 kg – the largest ever recorded had a weight of 1000 kg – and they normally have a length of between 2.4 and 3.3 metres, although researchers have estimated from feeding trails, that one female dugong feeding off Egypt’s Red Sea coast might be as much as 4 metres long. If this is confirmed she will be the largest dugong yet discovered in the Red Sea (The Egyptian Journal of Aquatic Research). However a dugong brain normally weighs only around 300g – just one thousandth or less of their body mass !
ARE DUGONGS EATEN BY SHARKS ?
It is thought that sharks usually only attack young dugong. It’s not known how many young dugongs are lost to sharks but it is thought that man made pollution, fishing and hunting represent a much bigger threat to the dugong population.
HOW LONG CAN THEY STAY UNDERWATER ?
As a mammal, a dugong breathes oxygen but can remain underwater for up to six minutes before needing to surface to breath but their dives typically last between one and three minutes. This is not long by comparison with whales and dolphins than can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes or longer. It also makes them relatively vulnerable to hunters.
HOW FAST CAN DUGONGS SWIM ?
Their average swimming speed is about 10 kilometres per hour (6 mph) but they can attain speeds of up to 22 kilometres per hour (14 mph).
HOW FAST CAN THEY BREED ?
Not very fast. Adults are at least nine years old before they become sexually active and the mother’s gestation period is thirteen months at the end of which she usually gives birth to just a single calf. So even in ideal conditions the dugong population would only be able to grow at a rate of five per cent per annum from their present very low levels.
CAN I ADOPT A DUGONG ?
It looks like that might be possible. More information through the World Wildlife Fund.
DID YOU KNOW ?
Dugongs are thought to have been the inspiration behind ancient mariners’ tales of mermaids and they are also closely related to elephants.
TAKE A TAXI TO SEE A DUGONG ?
Steven’s Taxis (highly rated on TripAdvisor) offers a low one way taxi fare to Abu Dabbab Bay, one of the favourite feeding grounds of the dugong, from just 22 euro (if your hotel is near the airport) for a private air conditioned licensed taxi saloon or 33 euro for a large airconditioned licensed minivan. For prices from more distant hotels email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Steven via WhatsApp on +201284332337.
He also offers day trip excursions from Port Ghalib marina to Marsa Mubarak or Shoni Bay reefs, where there’s one of the best changes anywhere in the world (though not guaranteed) of seeing a dugong. The excursion is priced at 49 euros per person for those staying in a hotel within 30 km of Port Ghalib – a small surcharge applies if you are staying in more distant hotels. The price covers your return transfer, all your snorkelling equipment, .soft drinks, plenty of bottled water and a freshly prepared lunch. For more information see the Abu Dabbab page.