Diary of a Dugong: Legends, Taboos and Truths amidst the Seagrass – an essay by Alia Yunis
March 20, 2019
One day, two girls walked to the coast. They were astonished to see the sea and thought it would taste like water. The girls found a coconut on the beach. One sister was crying for something inside the coconut. The other was trying to offer her every part of the coconut she could but she continued crying and moving towards the sea. The sister begged her to come back. She continued walking to the deeper water until she disappeared. There, the girl changed to what is today a dugong.
–Naro, Solomon Islands
This is a sacred story of the Kidipale tribe in Naro and they do not share the whole story with outsiders, so I cannot tell you more. But as one Naro woman explained, as told to her by her grandfather, the dugong carries the blood of the tribe. That is why they do not eat dugongs, like was once the case in other places in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere.
I am a dugong, and I started this diary in Naro because it gives me hope that I will not disappear completely, despite the threats I face—pollution, net fishing, global warming. These are the side effects of modernity you hear about all the time so you become numb to them, and stop thinking how it effects every little creature in the sea. Not that I am so little. I’m one of the largest mammals in the water, weighing up to 450 kilos. Wherever I live, this body of mine is a vessel that fed my children when they were babies and once provided food and magical medical cures for humans, and still carries stories of the people and places around the Pacific and Indian waters I inhabit.
Some say we look like naked women. In fact, when sailors in Ananalava, Madagascar used to capture one of us, they covered her up with a sailcloth to preserve her modesty, just as they would have with a naked human. This is also true in Naro, some 12,000 kilometers away across the Indian Ocean. The stories about me might seem strange to people who do not know dugongs, but in the lands where I have lived, no matter how far apart they are, you’ll discover similar tales.
Humans especially think we look like women when they come across us in spring, our birthing season, and find us breastfeeding. But we don’t breastfeed as many children as humans do because we give birth at a much slower rate. We start having babies somewhere between 10- and 17-years old, but there is a span of three to seven years between kids. Like humans, we’re very attached to our kids, and nurse ours until they are two-years old.
My name in Naro is Daki ni Tasi, which translates into “girl from the sea”. Dugong is originally a Malay word that means mermaid. And mermaid stories were inspired by sailors who spotted dugongs in the shallow waters in which we reside, and we reminded them of the women they left behind. In many places in Mozambique and Madagascar, men who captured dugongs had to take an oath swearing they had not committed any taboo acts with us. We have breasts and our sex organs look like those of humans. There’s no other polite way of explaining it.
Many people notice that we travel in pairs, not crowds. These are not usually romantic partnerships. The person with us is probably our calf. Still most of the stories about us are about love and pride and the origins of men—and women.
Long ago, there was an ethnic clan called Marofelana who were dominant and strong compared to their neighbors. In their effort to expand their kingdom, they began to conquer their neighboring territories. In conquering an ethnic tribe, the queen of the tribe did not want to be enslaved or killed, so she and her servants dived into the sea. A few days later, their purified bodies turned into dugongs.
— Dugong Festival, Nosy Be, Madagascar.
In Ananalava, Madagascar, where I also heard this tale, they say that when the queen and her servants were seen again by man they looked like humans with tails and heads like pigs.
That could be why our name in Madagascar is sea pig. Or maybe they call us that because when we come up from underwater to breath, just like humans do, we make a little sound that could be described as an oink.
In Mozambique, we are also called sea pigs, because, to quote a local fisherman, we are “fat and slow”. That’s a bit mean. But that name is the reason Muslims cut off our heads before eating us as they don’t eat pig meat.
But no one captures us for food anymore—or at least they’re not supposed to. Since the 1980s, hunting dugongs has been banned almost everywhere, although there are stories of people secretly selling dugongs caught in nets. As you can guess from what I said earlier, in addition to selling the meat—and one of us can feed between 200-300 people—tears from our tear ducts and our ground up bones are considered to have aphrodisiac powers. Our fat, made into an oil, was long used to cure earaches in Madagascar, to heal wounds in Malaysia and treat burns in Sri Lanka. Ground bones were mixed into hot water to “cool the body” in Malaysia.
In Vilankulos, Mozambique, only elders remember and acknowledge eating dugongs. But younger men recall their elders telling stories about capturing dugongs for big celebrations, like weddings.
There was a reverence everywhere back then to slaughtering a dugong. In Ironona, Madagascar, cut a dugong’s ears, and you turn deaf. Cut its fins, and you lose motor function of your hands. Cut any part of the body—like the naval, the mammary glands—and a curse will fall upon you that perhaps no witch doctor can remove.
The person in charge of the slaughter should wash himself with water containing an extract of a plant, the Voamore (species of lianas), to avoid curses. This plant is generally used to face difficult times.
For most fisherman, we are mercifully too big to hunt. But if we are accidentally stranded or killed—mostly because of getting caught in nets–then we are allowed to be eaten.
One woman in the Solomon Islands remembers as a girl that a stranded dugong was killed and shared with the whole village. She was definitely not from the Kidipale tribe. “Only when a dugong is injured do people have the access to kill it and eat it because that’s when it comes ashore,” she explained.
Although a dugong will be eaten by the village families if a fisherman accidentally captures one of us in Mozambique, it’s still bad luck and someone has to bring a witch doctor to purify the fisherman so that his won’t be cursed as a fisherman and no longer be able catch enough fish to survive.
But our problem is not being hunted for food and our magical cures. It is man’s destruction of our beautiful seagrass beds. I don’t hunt others. I eat one thing only: seagrass, the great flowering meadows not far from shore. And not just any seagrass, but the nice, young, tender parts that are easy to digest. I eat about 30 kilos of it a day. But seagrass beds are being destroyed as quickly as the rainforest is disappearing. I compare seagrass to forests because seagrass beds produce even more oxygen than rain forests.
Ravan, the mighty king of Lanka, abducted Sita and took her in his aerial chariot to Lanka. Sita’s wails and protests were heard by cattle grazing on the Pandyan coast bordering the sea off Taprobane. Looking up, the cattle saw the plight of Sita, the divine daughter of Mother Earth. Without a second thought, they followed the chariot across the sea. Taking pity on them, Sita prayed to Varuna, the lord of the sea, to protect them and threw down the flowers that adorned her, which upon reaching the depth turned into sea grass, took root and ultimately helped to sustain them. The cattle managed to escape the attention of the guardian demon of the deep, Sinhika, but were turned back by demons guarding the coast. Unable to proceed further and unwilling to abandon Sita, the cattle were content to be changed by the Sea God into the dugong we see today.
— Karainagar, Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, as you might have guessed from this story, we are sometimes called sea cows. I’m also called a sea cow in Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. I’m not sure why but it could also be a description of the style with which I munch seagrass, kind of like a cow grazing.
Dugongs are not the only ones who eat seagrass. Sea turtles also need it. People don’t need to eat it, but they enjoy seagrass and the little fruits it produces.
In the Solomon Islands, kids grill seagrass fruits on hot stones as a snack. It’s also considered a useful medicine—it takes away the pain from a fish sting. I wonder if humans ever think that studying these traditions might help cure today’s ills. I hope they do before this heritage is buried by modern education.
In Malaysia, one variety of seagrass fruit is round like a chickpeas and tastes as such. In Pulau Sibu, women harvest seagrass fruit in the monsoon season between November and January when it flowers. Cooks then boil the fruit and serve it with freshly grated coconut and sugar or make it part of a cake or a porridge-like dessert.
The woman was pregnant and had cravings to eat seagrass. The husband did not want to take her, so she went on her own during low tide and started eating seagrass until it became high tide. The tide became higher and higher until she could not come back. Then she turned into a dugong and swam away.-Pulau Tinggi, Malaysia
In Pulau Sibu, people have specific names for the different types of seagrass fruit, depending on their size. The fruits are biggest in January, but older people remember that there was much more fruit production back in the 1970s than today.
In Ankazomborona, Madagascar, some people consider the seagrass sacred as it is food for the dugong and so they do not touch it. A man in Naro puts it this way: “We show respect for seagrass in a sense that it’s a fish garden. It is part of our overall taboo area for replenishment of our sea resources.”
Today in many communities, many young people do not understand this. They start fishing only after they finish a least a basic education, as opposed to the past, when they would start fishing for a living at as young as 10-years old sometimes. The education is good—I’m happy about that. And I hope it teaches them to be better fishermen. But between school and work, parents and kids don’t have time to think about me or the seagrass. Just getting through the day is enough. Even the traditional connection to the sea is getting lost for a lot of people. I hope they at least talk about me in class sometimes with their teachers. I hope parents tell their kids these old stories about me at home during dinner—only the family-friendly stories of course. Because if tradition is lost, what else is lost? Not just myths will be lost but also knowledge that human elders learned from the sea.
Maybe I can’t explain all the scientific reasons for saving dugongs and seagrass. But just like you need a line to catch a fish, you need a line to your heritage, which has always relied on fishing. Without seagrass, there is no fish. And without fish there is no sustenance. And I know many of these places are trying to make a living through tourism, too. But without sea life, what would be so special about visiting? I mean, in all modesty, who wouldn’t like to catch a glimpse of me in the water? And in a sustainable seagrass world, that could be. Maybe it can even be like the old days again—people will suddenly see me or perhaps hear me when I come up to breath. And they can guess who I may have once been.
A new bride was having a difficult time with her evil mother-in-law. No matter what she did, the mother-in-law found fault. So, the young bride jumped into the sea to escape. But she did not die. She became a dugong.
This story is based on results from a Cultural Scoping Study developed for the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project by Leena Iyengar. The study was conducted across several communities in Malaysia, Madagascar, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste. This story would not have been possible without the communities’ support and the survey teams of C3 and Mihary Network (Madagascar), Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Reef Check Malaysia (Malaysia), Dugongos (Mozambique), Biodiversity Education and Research (Sri Lanka) and World Fish Center (Solomon Islands).
About the Author
Alia Yunis is a writer and filmmaker based in Abu Dhabi.
She is the author of the critically acclaimed novel:
The Night Counter (Random House, 2010).