Maskelyne Islands, Vanuatu

THE SEARCH FOR HERDING DUGONGS

AUTHOR
Andi Cross
PHOTOGRAPHERS
Marla Tomorug and Adam Moore
July 20, 2023
|
9 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

It was nearing three hours into the ride and the sun was rapidly setting. We had been standing in the back of a truck bed, with nothing but a few bars holding us in place. The “roads” we were traversing were far from anything you’d see in civilization. In fact, it was reasonable to say these were the most extreme “off-roads” we’d ever been on. With nothing preventing us from rolling right into the ocean at times, we were driving downhill into the night, with only the full moon guiding us. 

This was the road we had to take from one village called Norsup to another called Lamap in order to get to the Maskelyne Islands. These islands are considered remote, with hardly any modern infrastructure, and rarely visited by far-away travelers. This full moon ride through rivers, past the vast ocean and dodging tree branches, wasn’t the last of our voyage to the islands. We had an hour-long boat ride through ripping currents and aggressive winds, soaking us head to toe. 

Our bodies bruising in real time from the treacherous commute, the team was hysterically laughing. We were surely living out the mantra of our expedition, venturing to the edges of earth. We were all thinking the same thing: the commute in itself was an indication of how wild and raw this week would be. It had become quite apparent that when the journey to get to a particular location was aggressive, our wildlife encounters were more likely to be outstanding. 

As an avid dugong lover, I had never seen one in the wild. After many expeditions to try and find this elusive animal, I always came home unlucky. Western Australia boasts the highest population of dugongs in the world, yet living there for five years, I had never even come close. So, this mission was to figure out where and how the team could see at least one, if not more. 

Flash forward and here we are—making our way through the shallow ocean to a place called Batis Bungalow. The legend was that these parts were known for dugong aggregations and the chance of seeing them were high.

The man who built the boat we were steaming on and the owner and operator of Batis Bungalow was called Sethric. He was officially stuck with us for a week and our appointed guide for the great dugong search. Pulling up to his homestay, we saw two beautiful stilted bungalows calling our names. They were sustainably constructed and perfect for the week’s activities ahead. With nothing but a single bar of data, we were officially off the grid.

Sethric and I had been speaking for months. He would give me daily updates on how many dugongs he was seeing. So, on day one he knew exactly how to work us—waking us up bright and early to set a game plan. Around here, low tide is quite significant, meaning we only had a few moments in the day to get out and back safely without damaging the gigantic reef system Sethric lived on. As avid divers, we were keen to scuba. However, the islands were far from set up to accommodate such desires. Blocking this option out of our minds, we were ready for some breath holds instead.  

Maskelyne Islands are part of the pristine waters of Vanuatu, known for untouched beauty and rich cultural heritage. This archipelago is made up of several islands—most of which are uninhabited. Of those that are, communities are welcoming and people are extremely interested in making those who made the long trek part of their world. 

So much so, that one day, we were walking around the village of Peskarus, observing the local culture and natural surroundings. Village life was peaceful, relaxed and all about kava—the plant-based drink that makes you feel equal parts high and drunk, yet functional all the while. 

We stumbled upon the village Chief, who offered us an extremely thoughtful kava experience alongside him and his trusted team. It wasn’t just us getting roped into this formal experience, but three “yachties,” from London, Ireland and Taiwan. The six of us were welcomed into the Chief’s community, and we drank kava and shared stories for hours. 

Never hearing the term “yachties” before, we came to learn it was used to describe people living on boats who sail around the world, making sure every day counts as if it’s their last. And we also came to learn these particular yachties had an air compressor onboard. Dreams really can come true! 

Not many humans have donned scuba gear in these waters. With only two boats in sight in the entire area, we had this open ocean all to ourselves. With tanks and kits now assembled, we jumped in the 28 degree water, and this team of six were off to find majestic dugongs. Sethric leading the charge. 

Here’s the thing about dugongs: diving isn’t that easy with them. They are the definition of elusive—shy and skittish, they are not a fan of bubbly tanks. They swim extremely fast for an animal that looks like a giant potato. You would think their calm demeanor and seagrass eating ways would make them slow moving. But, that wasn’t the case with these dugongs. If you blinked, you could miss them. 

That day, half our group saw the dugongs, while the other half did not. And of course, I was part of the losing team. Waving our newfound yachtie friends goodbye after our day in the shallows, we set a new game plan with Sethric.

In order to see a dugong, is to become a dugong—or better put: become part of their natural world. 

Sethric’s grand plan was to drop us in the open ocean, distance the boat (yet staying in eyesight), elimite the bubble aspect from the process, and peacefully wait. We all agreed, as no one knows dugongs better than Sethric. 

The next day, Sethric navigated the shallows like a pro, clearly having done this his entire life. Beneath us was one of the most beautiful, healthy and untouched reefs we had ever seen—which was a general theme in Vanuatu as we said that about every location we dove. Dropping us off on a florescent colored reef, we were in awe. For a second, the thought of finding a dugong slipped away, as we were so mesmerized by what was right in front of us. 

With time, we shifted from crystal clear to dark and murky waters. So murky that I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. I was wondering what caused the change, thinking perhaps it was sedimentation due to rough currents which were prevalent here. Or dugongs churning up the bottom environment. For a brief second, I thought it might be dugong feces. But, unfortunately that wasn’t going to be a proximity indicator, as dugong poop is rather contained due to their herb-only diet. Regardless, the momentary murkiness for some reason felt like we might be getting closer to action. 

Just like that, a huge pod of dugongs came right up to us, circling us and observing us. Especially the babies—they were equal parts skittish and curious—while the adults moved slowly and observed us from a distance. 

Dugongs, often referred to as "sea cows," inhabit the coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific region. These gentle giants are closely related to manatees and are known for their unique appearance and behavior. They can grow up to 3 meters in length and weigh over 400kg, making them the largest herbivorous marine mammal. They use their muscular lips to graze, using their fins and their tail fluke to propel themselves through the water. These graceful swimmers can spend up to six minutes underwater before resurfacing to breathe.

They help maintain the health and balance of seagrass meadows, which are crucial habitats for numerous marine species. Dugongs play a vital role in dispersing seagrass seeds as they consume the plants and excrete them in different locations, facilitating bed growth and regeneration. Due to their ecological significance, dugongs are considered a keystone species in coastal marine environments.

Sethric knew exactly where we needed to be to see dugongs. He also was a masterful spotter of them from the boat. He would whistle out to us and point in the right direction, and we’d all sprint to get there. Once in position, we’d stop moving to get on the dugongs level. Our mission was officially complete. Not only did we see one dugong, we saw up to twenty. 

After multiple days out on the ocean with Sethric, it became apparent that this is one of the few places in the world where every single day you can see a range of 2-30 dugongs all at once. 

Because dugongs are always on the search for more seagrass, they often are roaming in pairs of 2 or entirely alone. Migrating quite far, they can traverse a lot of ground in hopes of digesting more of their favorite food. That’s why it’s very uncommon to see many all at once, making these islands special. 

Unfortunately, dugongs face numerous threats to their survival. Habitat loss, degradation of seagrass meadows, and entanglement in fishing nets are among the main challenges they encounter. Hunting is another big issue—as dugongs are considered a source of food. Conservation efforts, such as the establishment of protected areas and conservation programs focused on habitat preservation and sustainable fishing practices, are crucial for the long-term survival of dugongs. And that’s exactly what we saw firsthand on the islands—it was a giant conservation zone established by those who call this magical place home. 

When it takes all of your strength and desire to get to a certain place, the payoff is usually worth it. For us, it wasn’t just about the dugongs after our week on the islands—it was about the people we had the chance to meet. From our new friends that live out to sea to spending lots of quality time with the dugong master himself. When you have a chance to explore the ocean with someone who’s done it their entire life, you’re going to have experiences that last you a lifetime. Memories that are forever embedded in your mind. And when someone opens up their home, conservation methods, and way of life to you—as if you are part of the family—it's some of the most meaningful and fulfilling travel you can possibly do. 

In order to leave Maskelyne Islands, we had to take Sethric’s boat to Lamap, carry all of our bags over our heads across knee-deep ocean for at least 100 meters, and then take a dirt road to a grass landing strip. Because all flights are on island time in Vanuatu, we waited an extra two hours before take off. But this meant more time with Sethric and his family before having to say goodbye. Eating coconuts that we found off the side of the green runway, we laughed, joked, and cried. 

Saying goodbye was bittersweet, as you don’t know when you’ll see your newfound family again. When you have a life altering expedition, with people who truly care about the planet and their contribution, parting is always going to be hard. But, we left knowing we always have a place to call home on the remote and wild Maskelyne Islands, where the dugongs freely roam. 

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