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On the lookout for the elusive dugong

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-10-01

It was a hot Okinawan morning and we had all gathered at Henoko Port. A group of men, who called themselves the "Dugong Network Okinawa," were trying to explain to us what we were supposed to be looking for once we entered the ocean.

"The Dugong usually come into shallow waters at night to feed on sea grass. The way they eat on the sea bottom causes a trench to form along their feeding path," explained one of the network members as he held up underwater photos of the areas he was describing.

I heard someone nearby say: "It would be great if we see a dugong swimming by." Everyone seemed anxious to get started.

After learning about the feeding habits of the elusive dugong, we collected our gear and headed for the water. We were being led to one of the many sites identified as a dugong feeding area. As we boarded the boat, we noticed the vessel had been repaired quite a few times - maybe once too many - and our captain looked more like the Okinawan version of Sammy Hagar than an experienced seaman. But, our worries were put aside when we began to cut through the aqua-blue waves of the Pacific Ocean without any problems.

After nearing our destination, we readied our snorkeling and underwater camera equipment. I could clearly see the abundance of sea grass below the ocean's surface, broken only by patches of white sand. The anchor was dropped and over the side we went.

Visibility was poor, but our group headed for the bottom to look for trenches of eaten sea grass - evidence of a dugong's presence. After several up and downs for air, most of us were looking puzzled; no signs of any dugong having been there. Our hopes of getting lucky and spotting one of the mammals also began to fade. We snorkeled for about an hour, but even with the help of our guides - the same men who have been conducting research on the dugong's habitat for several years now - we still couldn’t find any areas of eaten sea grass.

Back on land, I talked to Taro Hosokawa, the first person on Okinawa to have taken an underwater photograph of a dugong off the Henoko coastline. "The dugong have been spotted many times throughout the year, so we know that they live here all year round. What we don't know about is their movements from one place to another," he explained. Hosokawa and other members agreed there is still much information that needs to be gathered and more research conducted to get a better understanding of the dugong's life and habitat.

The mammal is closely related to a manatee, but unlike the manatee it does not spend time in riverways. It is found in parts of Indonesia and other warm ocean areas, but its numbers are believed to be very few in Okinawa.

Dugong have been documented in Okinawan history for centuries, but its present situation is still surrounded by much controversy. It was not until discussion of the construction of an off-shore heliport in Henoko did environmentalists arrive on the scene, claiming the heliport would greatly affect the habitat of the already endangered mammal. Also, there are still many skeptics who feel the species no longer survives in Okinawa despite the evidence of photographs.

For the past three years the Dugong Network Okinawa has been trying to support the dugong theory and introduce its plight to the general public. The "Dugong Trench Observation Seminar" is one of the ways in which the network is educating citizens about the importance of protecting the dugong and its fragile environment.

Yoko Shimoji, an elementary school teacher from Naha, made the long drive to Henoko to participate in September's seminar. "I think it is important to protect this area," she commented. Shimoji also explained that she hopes to use the experience to teach her students more about the Dugong and Okinawa's environment.

"I was a little disappointed because I thought that I would be able to sea the trench of eaten sea grass more clearly, but I was very glad to have the chance to swim in the same sea where the dugong also swim," said Taku Kitagawa, a young scuba diver from Naha. "I would definitely like to come again."

The heliport base issue has also seen Hosokawa and other members try to collect signatures from seminar participants, to petition the government to support their cause. Hosokawa added, however, mentioned that the Dugong Network Okinawa is fighting against all threats to the dugong and not just U.S. military bases. "There are many forms of environmental damage and pollution that have a negative impact on the dugong," he said. "We need the cooperation and understanding of everyone."

If you would like more information about the Dugong Network Okinawa, or would like to attend the next observation seminar, please contact their office by phone or fax at 0980-54-2462. (Japanese please) You can check out their web site at: www.ii-okinawa.ne.jp/people/higap/index.html

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