Thala Beach Lodge was host to a rare and beautiful visitor this week; a dugong, or ‘sea cow’ as they are sometimes called. The rare sea mammal was spotted by a lucky group of guests as they took guided nature walk through the forest and beaches around Thala Beach Lodge. The dugong was spotted just off Pebbly Beach where sea grass, a primary source of food for the dugong, grows.
The name sea cow comes from the dugong’s grazing habits rather than any similarity in looks. It’s head actually resembles that of an elephant, which is it’s closest relative. In contrast to their upper half, dugong sport a long graceful tail that brings to mind that of a mermaid, and it is rumoured that these creatures inspired this myth; that female dugong were what lonely sailors saw so long ago and imagined as maidens of the sea. This is rather surprising as a mature female dugong can reach up to three meters in length, and weigh in excess of four hundred pounds.
Australia is home to the largest concentration of dugong left in the world – around 80,000 occupy waters reaching from Shark bay in Western Australia to Morton Bay in Queensland. Dugongs are regarded as environmental indicators in coastal marine ecosystems, and their significant presence on the Great Barrier Reef was one of the reasons it was given a World Heritage Listing. Today, there is estimated to be around 12000 dugong in the Great Barrier Reef region
The dugong’s native habitat extends throughtout the Indian and Pacific Oceans however, various threats to the species have seen a dramatic drop in population of dugong in many areas and even reach extinction in places such as the Maldives and around Mauritius.
Sharks, crocodiles, and killer whales are natural predators to the dugong, however their biggest threat is humans. Like dolphins, dugong are prone to getting caught in fishing nets or hit by boats, and the sea grass that so integral to their diet is threatened by industry, mining and agricultural practices that greatly affect the health of coastal waters. Despite their ecological importance and dwindling numbers, dugong are still only partially protected.