Marsa Alam: The gentle dugong and its ‘eco’ tourism

Marsa Alam is an amazing location for (free)divers seeking marine animal encounters: big turtles, dolphins, dugongs, different type of rays and more can be found in the most Southern part of Egypt in the Red Sea. When telling my freediving friends about our trip, the first reaction is: WOOOW DUGONG!!! And yes indeed, our encounter with this beautiful and gentle marine mammal was the absolute highlight. 🙂

Dugongs, also known as sea cows, are one of four living species of the order Sirenia. Unlike their mostly freshwater cousins, manates, dugongs are primarily marine mammals. Dugongs generally inhabit shallow waters, remaining at depths of around 10m. They are herbivorous and consume large amounts of sea grass.

Some facts about dugongs:

  • Adults length: 2.4 to 4m
  • Adults weight: 230 to 400 kg
  • Lives up to 70 years of age
  • Reproductive rate is very low
  • Eat up to 30 kg of sea grass a day
  • Similar tail shape as a dolphin. (Unlike manatees, who have a paddle-shaped tail)
  • Have poor vision, but exceptional hearing. Dugongs use sounds that echo underwater in order to communicate.
  • Social, but shy, and do not approach humans. Therefore little is known about dugong behaviour.
  • Listed as VULNARABLE TO EXTINCTION on the IUCN Red List and as ENDANGERED on the US Federal list.


Day 1: searching
On our first day of searching for the dugong we spend four hours in the water and left the water without spotting one, but with a big smile nonetheless as being able to watch several turtles peacefully grazing the seabed.

Day 2: first encounter: Magic & Madness
The second day, we changed location and arrived 6:30am at another bay with lots of sea grass. After three hours of searching, a dugong finally appeared! A magical and emotional moment!
And each time looking at the dugong that magic persisted, however with a very bitter side taste that had nothing to do with this beautiful animal itself.
Since it was now later in the morning, several boats had arrived. As soon as the news of the arrival of the dugong was spread along the bay, the big boats blasted their horns and zodiacs raced to the spot dropping herds of snorkelers in the water. From shore people jumped in the water and scuba divers swam to the dugong. Because of the wind, the visibility was not that great. But the biggest cloud of dust was created by the people around the dugong, not even the grazing of the dugong itself.

One women, who was on scubagear, sat on the seabed at less than 30 cm distance from the dugong, flapping her arms above it, as she had no proper buoyancy control. After watching this for several minutes, one dive guide finally told her to keep more distance.
Selfie sticks were popped in front of the animal. And with a ‘soup’ of more than fifty ‘snorkelers’ on the surface on several occasions there was hardly any space for the dugong to surface for breathing. Resulting in people accidentally touching the dugong and fins hitting the dugong.
The whole experience was upsetting, a true ‘beauty and the beast’ experience. With us, humans, being the beast. But who is to blame for this situation?
One could clearly NOT speak of ecotourism!
Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education (TIES, 2015).  Education is meant to be inclusive of both staff and guests.”

Day 3: Second encounter: Feeling at risk!
The morning started with several hours in the water scanning the sea bed and searching the nicest patches of sea grass for the dugong without success. During this time, it seemed the boats had recognized us from the previous day.
On each day, there were about 3 to 5 regular diving boats, plus 2 big yellow glass bottom boats.
As it is their goals to find marine life for their guest, part of their strategy now was to keep an eye on us and race over in their zodiacs as soon as they thought we found something.
So, as we were swimming underwater with a huge turtle, the sound of a zodiac appeared stronger and stronger, with us frightened to resurface. When we finally could surface in an attempt to establish safe grounds, a zodiac was next to us, with the driver shooting at us if there was a dugong down there.
Now we felt what it was like to be hunted. Hunted so they could find the dugong for their guests. With total disregard to our safety. The propeller of a zodiac can kill people with ease and is a very common way to get severe injury at sea.
We had already noticed on the previous day, that the zodiacs were keeping almost no distance from the cloud of ‘snorkelers’ and dugong. What had made us come back, were the beautiful moments we had with the dugong when it started to swim and managed to shake off the crowd. Hoping to have a few more moments like this. But after 3 hours of search we were tired and decided to swim back to shore.
Then, from the corner of my eye, I spotted the dugong! 🙂 We went over and were alone with the dugong, who was peacefully enjoying his breakfast! What an amazing animal. We managed to be -almost- alone with it for 20minutes until it disappeared.
During this time, another zodiac raced towards us keeping no distance at all, asking us: ‘Dugong? Dugong?’

Video: Zodiac passing very near my head as I’m filming the dugong

The dugong was right next to us a few meters underwater, but because of all the foam the boat driver had created he could not see it. Again I shooted to him in Arabic ‘Go away! Keep distance!’ And he left.
Some minutes later a glass bottom boat appeared. The dugong was grazing at a depth of about five meters only at that point. The front of this massive glass bottom boat was pointing at me at a mere two meter distance! The bottom of the boat nearly touching the sea bed! What was he planning to do? Run over me, run over the dugong? Angry I waved and shooted at him to keep distance. No response. Just a laugh, displaying ignorance and disrespect. In deeper water it happened again. A thirty meter glass bottom boat came at less than two meter distance from us and the dugong, even waiving at us to move!
With the beautiful moment with the dugong in our mind, we swam back to safety, back to shore. Away from the dangerous behaviour of these boat drivers. Where is the education of the local people providing these boat trip and putting these ‘snorkelers’ in the water?
Dugongs are enlisted as vulnerable species because of HUMAN ACTIVITY.
Boat strikes and boating activities (e.g. acoustic pollution) being one of the major threats to them.
And in this case, to the divers, freedivers and snorkelers, as well.

Note: About the ‘snorkelers’

As dugongs are normally shy and very sensitive to noises, we were actually surprised that this particular dugong is still visiting this bay. Maybe his daily need for large amount of sea grass forces him to. Clearly, it looked like he has adapted himself to this unnatural situation: his shyness was absent, continued to eat despite the boats moving around him* and he didn’t seem to mind bumping a human out of his way in order to breath or move to the next patch of sea grass.
To us is seemed that a lot of snorkelers where in the water without education and awareness. But furthermore, half of them cannot be called a ‘snorkeler’. We are talking about people that hold on to a buoy and are being dragged through the water by their guide and that are not necessarily able to swim.
Very popular nowadays is this full face snorkel mask. Before, snorkelers needed to have some aquatic skills to manage a regular mask and snorkel. As now, with the full face mask even the most un-aquatic person can be dropped and dragged through the water. As a consequence, there was a large crowd of ‘snorkelers’ above the dugong, with some of them unable to make space for the dugong when he needed to surface for breathing.

*The effects of acoustic pollution from boat traffic on the dugong has not been studied, despite consistent anecdotal reports of dugongs ceasing to use areas with high boat traffic.

More about the abuses of wildlife / eco – tourism:
Special Report: The Amazon Is the New Frontier for Deadly Wildlife Tourism
“There’s a problem with wildlife tourism no one is talking about”



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