DUGONGS!

Our quest for the past week and a half has been a noble one: find dugongs. Dugongs, in case you are not familiar with them, are like manatees. They are also called sea cows, as they graze through meadows of sea grass, snout to the sand. Some people believe that when early sailors reported mermaid sightings, they were really seeing dugongs and manatees. This seems like a bit of a stretch when you consider that dugongs are closely related to elephants, but sailors spent a lot of time at sea, eating from a pickle barrel and begging for grog. In furtherance of our quest, we headed for Lamen Bay on the island of Epi. Lamen Bay is, or was, the home of Bondas the friendly dugong. Bondas liked to have her bristly belly scratched. Sadly, Bondas has either moved on to other pastures, or, perhaps, to that great sea grass meadow in the sky. We had heard rumors to that effect, but chose to ignore them until the locals confirmed them. Now, the dugongs are more frequently seen at Lamen Island, a lovely island with white sand, friendly people, beautiful coral, and a clear lagoon. But, the island is a wind-blasted paddle across an open channel, and our dinghy was not really up to the task. We swam every inch of Lamen Bay instead, and we saw lots of turtles and a couple of sharks, but no dugongs. We ramped up the quest. After watching all of the locals paddle from Lamen Island to their gardens on Epi, we decided we needed to find an outrigger canoe. We managed to secure ourselves one very leaky dugout. I think Tasso, the owner of said canoe, only let us use it because he didn’t think we’d get very far. Apparently, white people usually just go in circles in an outrigger canoe, so they have some dink-around kayaks four tourist rentals. We insisted on the canoe. An hour or so later, we paddled our canoe through the reef to Lamen Island, much to the amusement of our soon-to-be-new-friends on shore. They weren’t very impressed with our paddling skills because they noticed a lot of not paddling. In our defense, we were only not paddling when we were bailing out the boat. Or taking pictures. Our new friend Jake showed us around the island (literally, we walked around the whole thing), and told us that high tide is the best time for dugonging. We decided to go snorkeling anyway, and worked our way to the outside of the reef, seeking sea grass, though frequently distracted by soft corals and interesting fish. Just as I was squeezing through a narrow stretch of coral, Rob popped out of the water yelling, “DUGONG!” I swam frantically. The dugong was gone, probably not surprisingly, and Rob hadn’t had a clear enough view for a positive ID. We needed a plan. We decided on strategic synchronized swimming. We linked arms and calmly, with minimal splashing, kicked in unison toward Rob’s last dugong sighting, which is to say, toward the middle of the ocean. We were intensely focused on our quest. Except when I was distracted by the giant yellow-masked angel fish and other pretty things underwater. It was at this precise moment, as I hummed my new dugong song to myself underwater, that I thought about how hard all of my friends at home must be working on this tropical Wednesday afternoon. Alas, we were unable to find the dugong, so we decided to take the locals’ advice and go sit on shore and wait for high tide. The approach of darkness came before high tide, and we still hadn’t seen a dugong. Jake came back with his grandson to chat with us and asked gently when we thought we might start paddling back, mentioning once more the strong currents that come with the new moon. We invited him to come visit us at our boat and decided to head back before dark. I swam halfway, just in case. Tasso and friends were waiting for us when we pulled back into Lamen Bay with about a foot of water in the canoe. They’d asked their friends on the island to send a text message when we left, so they could watch for us and send a boat out if we didn’t make it. Which explains why so many people had come out to see whether we were still snorkelingÂ… We stuck around in Lamen Bay for a couple more days, snorkel-scouring the bay, but had no luck. As we were about to leave, Jake paddled up to the boat and was disappointed we were going. We left, but then we decided it was time we learn our lesson and take the time to return the hospitality we’ve been shown, so we turned around, found Jake ashore, and took him sailing around his island. It was the right choice. If you ever visit Vanuatu, go to Lamen Island. Jake’s planning to open a guest house where you can stay, and we can direct you to him. It’d be a fantastic place to stay for awhile. We moved on to Malekula, the next island north, in our continued search for dugongs. We found brilliant sea grass in our first anchorage, but no dugongs. We moved to another bay, and today, luck was with us. Not an hour after we anchored, Rob saw dugongs to starboard. We watched the dark shapes below the water and saw their vacuum snouts surfacing. They started to swim away. We had no time to lose. We abandoned our lunches and slipped quietly into the dinghy to follow. They were gone, so we decided to try a stealthy snorkel approach. We swam along the edges of the shallow area where we had seen them, and watched coral and fish. I dove down to check out some colorful coral about 15 feet down and snapped a couple of photos. Just as I ran out of breath and turned to surface, I looked up and there, three feet away, looking me right in the eye was a big, beautiful dugong. We could see its big snout and the scars on its back as it flicked its tail gracefully and circled us slowly, then swam away. After our long quest, we’ve been well rewarded. We got to snorkel with dugongs three times today and we’ll certainly try again tomorrow. In the meantime, we have an orange sun setting over the reef, and, with a clear sky, we’re hoping we might be able to see the glow of the volcanoes on the neighboring island, Ambrym, as it gets dark tonight.

2 thoughts on “DUGONGS!”

  1. “Dugong” has a very tropical, earthy, and tribal sound to it. It’s a cool word. Glad you got to see them. Waiting for photos….have to stay in touch with Jake to find out if he ever opens up his guest house. Would be an adventurous location for a vacation.

  2. Haven’t looked at your site in a long time and am sorry I waited so long. So happy your trip is going so well. What a life! I especially liked seeing the map of the world and your planned route home. So good to just take your time and enjoy and help people along the way. Safe travels, Jan and Wayne

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