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About The Dugong

The dugong is a large marine mammal, sometimes called a “sea cow”  because of its’ diet of seagrass. 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 freshwater 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. 

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 seagrass.

How many Dugongs live off Marsa Alam?

The dugong population is not large. Just seven known dugongs reside along the entire 100km coastline between Marsa Alam and El Quseir although actual numbers could be higher and Abu Dabbab is the most likely place to see one. 

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. 

How long does a Dugong live?

Around fifty years as an average. The oldest know Dugong lived 73 years.

Are the species endangered?

Since 1990 the dugong has been on the IUCN’s red list of threatened species as being considered vulnerable to extinction. 

Is the Marsa Alam population threatened?

Yes,  herbicidal run and pollution from some of the hotels in the Marsa Alam region may be reducing numbers.  They are also at risk from fishing nets and some tourists who may inadvertently damage the marine habitat.  They 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. The seagrass area is now off-limits to divers and snorkelers and rangers regularly patrol the bay to enforce the environmental regulations. 

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 that can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes or longer.  It also makes them relatively vulnerable to hunters.

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. 

What does the Dugong eat?

Mostly seagrass. 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 seagrass is more sparse. They favour grass high in nitrogen and low in fibre. The seagrass 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?

Adult dugong can weigh between 230 and 500kg and have a length of between 2.4 and 3  metres. However, their brain weighs 300g – just one-thousandth 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 fast do they swim? 

Their average swimming speed is about 10 kilometres per hour (6mph) but they can attain speeds of up to 22 kilometres per hour (14mph). 

Can anyone adopt a dugong?

Yes, through the World Wildlife Fund. More information at WorldWildlife.org

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.