Manatees (three species) and dugongs (one species) are marine mammals belonging to the scientific Order Sirenia. The four existing species have a great deal in common, ranging from their general anatomy, to ecology and feeding habits. However, they differ in the shape of the skull and of the tail, as well as their geographical distribution.
Dugong dugon, the only survivor of the Family Dugongidae, is commonly found in the eastern tropical and subtropical coastal waters of Indian and Western Pacific Oceans, while manatees (Genus Trichechus) are distributed in the water of the Central America, including Amazon River, and West Africa.
Dugongs (Dugong dugon) are peaceful and tranquil animals, they appear fat, but are fusiform, hydrodynamic, and highly muscular, reaching up to 3 metres in length and weighing up to 500 kg. They are exclusively bottom feeders, primary feeding on seagrass and aquatic vegetation they uproot by digging furrows in the seafloor with their snouts. The species’ preferred habitats include warm and shallow coastal waters, with healthy ecosystems that support large amounts of vegetation. As mammals, they regularly surface to breath and dive to feed, explore, rest or travel. The reproductive cycle is characterised by a long gestation period (13 months), after which the female will give birth to a single calf that will receive considerable parental care until it reaches sexual maturity (between age 8 and 18). Dugongs are long living animals (50 years or more), but because of the long effort invested in their young, females give birth only a few times during their life span.
Dugongs in Egyptian Red Sea
There is little information on dugong distribution and abundance along the African Red Sea. The situation of the Egyptian Red Sea is still relatively unknown as well. However, several locations have become popular for the presence of resident individuals or groups, and as consequence attract hordes of tourists. Moreover, as the coastline of Egypt is a site of extensive construction, habitat alteration and degradation are ongoing processes. A series of community-based management initiatives should be undertaken to protect the species through the conservation of coastal sites where they exist or are likely to be present.
Abu Dabab Conservation initiative
Marsa Abu Dabab, located few kilometres north of Marsa Alam, is one of the most popular diving spots in the south and home to the majority of dugong sightings in the Red Sea. Furthermore, the Bay is also well known as a nesting site for sea turtles. The sheltered and sandy bay of Abu Dabab offers many ideal conditions as a dugong habitat, including one of the largest patches of seagrass in the region, however its sustainability is at considerable risk from development, herbicidal run-off, chemical and biological pollution. Dugongs and turtles are also vulnerable to collision with vessels and by catch in fishing nets. On top of it, the extreme tourist pressure in the bay has become a serious concern, with an unsustainable amount of snorkellers and divers enjoying the “Dugong bay” everyday looking for the sirenian.
In January 2007, HEPCA, together with its partners, the Red Sea Governorate and the National Parks Authority of Egypt, proposed a management strategy to protect the bay and its inhabitants articulated on the following key actions.
Zoning: a new zoning line was secured to prevent motorized boat traffic inside the Bay; moreover, moorings were removed to stop overnight stays by safari boats.
Access: the bay can be accessed only from shore. The number if visitors (either visitors, snorkellers or divers) is carefully controlled and, in addition, safari and daily boats are no longer allowed to send their guests inside the Bay.
Enforcement: two rangers from the Red Sea Protectorate are to be positioned at Marsa Abu Dabab to ensure these restrictions are met.
Education: HEPCA and its partners (including the resident Orca Dive Club) have launched an awareness campaign that will help to educate not only visitors to the Red Sea, but also their guides.
Research: A sighting and mapping project was launched to collect much-needed data about the resident dugong population for scientific and environmental research.
Have you spotted a dugong in Egypt?
HEPCA is currently developing a Megafauna Monitoring Program, with the aim of gathering information on sightings of dolphins, dugongs, sharks and turtles from visitors, guests, guides and operators. Keep checking our website to find out more information as we post it.