Dugongs of the Philippines | JONATHAN BIRD’S BLUE WORLD

Dugongs of the Philippines | JONATHAN BIRD’S BLUE WORLD

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Coming up, Jonathan travels to the Philippines
in a search for the elusive Dugong! Welcome to Jonathan Bird’s Blue World! In the waters of Florida and the Caribbean,
there exists a gentle marine mammal called a manatee. Because they often live inshore–close to
people–and have enjoyed more than 40 years of protection from hunting or harassment,
manatees are often quite friendly. Many of them have become acclimated to gentle
interactions with people. DUGONG
But the manatee has a wild cousin, called a Dugong, living far away, in the Indo-Pacific
Ocean. This animal is still hunted in much of its
range. It’s shy and hard to approach. Wary of humans. And exceptionally rare to see underwater. Which is why I have come to the Philippines,
one of a handful of places in the world, where there are enough dugongs left to have a chance
of seeing one in the wild! I’m heading to Busuanga, in Palawan, Philippines,
a remote and beautiful area where the endangered dugong still roams wild. But I didn’t come alone. Award-winning IMAX filmmaking team Howard
and Michele Hall have joined me on this trip. They have been here before, and agreed to
give me a hand with this daunting and challenging assignment. Our journey begins with a flight from the
capital city of Manila down to Busuanga, then a drive from the local airport to the water. Next we take a ferry ride across the bay to
our home-away-from-home, El Rio Y Mar Resort, on the north side of Busuanga. We arrive just after sunset in time for dinner. The next morning, we awake to fog in the nearby
hills, and our dive boat, a traditional Philippino Bangka, ready to go. We get our gear together and load the boat. It’s going to be a long day. Good morning! In the experienced hands of captains Benny
Martinez and Wilmar Bansilan, we set out on our first day of adventure. Dugongs are wild animals that roam the ocean
freely, and it’s a big ocean. But we know where they saw dugongs recently,
so at least we know where to start looking. Unfortunately that spot is two hours away! Since it’s going to be a while, Howard and
Michele do the only logical thing: take a nap! I’ve never been here before, so I spend
some time watching the scenery go by. I am always amazed by the natural beauty of
the Philippines—lush, green hills surrounded by beautiful warm water filled with untold
species of animals to be discovered and filmed! Eventually we make it to the area where some
dugongs were last seen, and we start looking. With experienced eyes, divemasters Omar Linsangan
and Bryan Deramas begin scanning the surface of the water. Dugongs are solitary animals, so they are
looking for just one. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. After driving around looking for an hour,
at last, we spot a dugong! There is no time to waste in suiting up and
getting into the water. We don’t really need to make a stealthy
water entry because we are anchored really far from the dugong. We will swim several hundred yards to reach
the dugong because the boat spooks them. We follow Bryan for a few minutes, looking
around carefully in anticipation of finding the dugong! Finally we find it, and Howard takes the lead,
sneaking up on her, while she’s sleeping. The master at work. The dugong is covered in remoras, suction-cup
equipped fish that hang around larger animals for scraps. But why are there so many around this dugong? Michele films from above for a shot of me
and Howard inching closer and closer to the dugong, hoping it will tolerate our presence. But when the dugong wakes up and finds two
cameras in its face, the scene is over as it swims away. This is definitely going to be more work than
filming manatees in Florida! With Howard and Michele leading, we head back
to the boat. With the light fading, it’s time to head
for home. Back at the resort, we enjoy a beautiful Philippines
sunset and get a good night’s sleep. The next morning, we’re heading back, cameras
at the ready. We find a dugong quickly this time, so we
get suited up and into the water as fast as we can. Today is nice and sunny, and the water is
a little clearer on an incoming tide. Omar leads us to the dugong and this time
we get lucky. The dugong is actively feeding, and fortunately
he is more interested in food than us, so as I sneak up close for some shots, he doesn’t
seem to mind. Like manatees, dugongs are herbivores—they
eat only plants. And their favorite plants to eat are sea grasses
that grow in the sandy sea floor in shallow water where there is plenty of light. While there is no shortage of this aquatic
salad for dugongs to eat, it’s not exactly dense in nutritional value. So dugongs need to spend more than half their
lives chomping away at sea grasses, and packing in nearly 100 pounds of it a day. Dugongs and manatees are in fact the only
completely herbivorous marine mammals. So, in spite of reaching the length and weight
of a small car, dugongs are completely harmless. A school of Golden trevally are hanging around
because as the dugong feeds, he scares up shrimp and other creatures hiding in the sand. It’s an easy feast for the fish. The dugong also has those other freeloaders…more
than a dozen remoras are hanging onto him and following along. They must drive the poor dugong absolutely
crazy, because every once in a while he engages in an elaborate ritual to try to rid himself
of some of them. It starts with some acrobatics—rolling and
twisting in the sand. The acrobatics kicks up a bunch of silt and
reduces the visibility to near zero in a giant cloud around the dugong. Once the dust cloud reaches epic proportions,
he shoots out of the cloud and zooms away at up to 15 miles per hour (which is actually
pretty fast underwater) and literally leaves the remoras in the dust! Unfortunately, the remoras always seem to
catch up again. I keep watching because I really want to know
why so many remoras hang around. What is their interest in the dugong? Then I see it, and it’s pretty disgusting. The remoras eat the dugong’s poop. Dugongs eat a lot, so they poop a lot. For the remoras, the dugong is like a swimming
poop vending machine. If you are what you eat, that explains why
even sharks won’t eat remoras! Like dolphins and whales, dugongs are mammals. Their ancient ancestors once lived on land. But in spite of their similarity to whales,
dugongs and manatees are more closely related to elephants. Since they’re mammals, they must rise to
the surface to breathe every few minutes. While the dugong can hold its breath for 15
minutes, they tend to breathe much more frequently than that–every 3-6 minutes. In spite of their similarity, dugongs and
manatees have one striking difference. The tail of a dugong looks like the fluke
of a whale or a dolphin. A manatee on the other hand, has a rounded,
paddle-like tail. While the manatee lives around the Caribbean,
the dugong has a huge range spreading across the tropical Pacific and Indian oceans, all
the way up into the Red Sea and Arabian gulf. The dugong is highly endangered in its entire
range, but the strongest holdouts of stable populations are in northern Australia and
the Arabian Gulf. Most countries now protect the dugong, and
ever so slowly, its numbers are growing, bringing this remarkable, harmless–and I would say
adorable–marine mammal back from the brink of extinction. As our new friend settles back into a nap,
pestered by his annoying poop-eating remora freeloaders, I watch for a while, having finally
gained his trust. But then, with our scuba tanks getting low,
it’s time for the long swim back to the boat. It took me 20 years to finally see a dugong
in the wild. But with continued protection, it is my fervent
hope that dugongs will be much easier for future generations to see, here in the wild
Blue World.

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