Known as a ‘sea cow’ due to its love for foraging on seagrass beds, there are about 3,000 of these harmless sea mammals living in the emirate’s waters.
Dugongs are a huge part of the area’s maritime culture throughout history, with the first dugong bones recorded here dating back to 7,500 years ago, says Maitha Al Hameli, section manager of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency (EAD)’s Marine Assessment & Conservation and Terrestrial & Marine Biodiversity Sectors.
“These slow-moving animals are attracted to Abu Dhabi’s unique habitat for many reasons,” she explains. “Not only does it have vast seagrass beds, which are the main food source for dugongs, but the extensive network of islands also provides shelter from seasonal winds and high seas. It’s an ideal area for them to live all year round and our waters contain no natural dugong predators,” she says.
Why do dugongs need to be protected?
Growing as big as four meters in length and weighing up to 400 kilograms, there are strict laws that protect the dugong’s natural habitats in Abu Dhabi.
In 2018, Abu Dhabi Government also banned surface fishing, which involves suspending large nets over the top of the ocean’s surface, after dozens of dugongs became trapped in these nets and died.
“Dugongs face two major threats in Abu Dhabi: bycatch and habitat loss,” explains Maitha. “The number of mortalities due to bycatch dropped significantly within the first year of the ban, however some still die due to illegal fishing activities and natural causes.”
The EAD has set up a number of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to ensure that dugongs, and other key species, have sufficient room to forage, breed and shelter.
“The MPAs are in areas that have high biological value and contain crucial habitats like corals, seagrasses and mangroves. For instance, the Marawah Biosphere Marine Reserve and the Al Yassat MPA encompass essential seagrass beds that are important forging and nursery areas for dugongs.”
Where can you find dugongs in Abu Dhabi?
Dugongs have a wide range and they can be found swimming alone or in groups. If you see a dugong while out on the water, the EAD advises you to give it space and just wait for it to swim past you.
“Dugongs can be found across all of the emirate’s seagrass beds, but most are concentrated around the MPAs,” she says. “Interestingly, and unlike other dugong populations, Abu Dhabi’s are known to gather in extremely big groups of up to 200 whilst feeding and nursing their young.”
“They don’t follow any specific migration pattern, however they tend to aggregate in shallower waters during winter to find shelter from the winds and feed.”
Dugongs and the ecosystem?
As well as the obvious cultural and historical importance of these majestic creatures, Maitha is keen to stress that dugongs also play a key part in the marine ecosystem.
“Dugongs are an umbrella species, which means that protecting them also preserves other animals that share the same habitat. They play a vital ecological role, and as grazers they contribute to the nutrient cycling and energy flow within the food chain.
“Other unique marine creatures such as the elusive finless porpoise, Indian Ocean humpback dolphin, hawksbill and green turtle, and rare fish like wedgefish, guitarfish, bow mouth fish and many other wonders all share Abu Dhabi’s waters with the dugongs. Our conservation efforts are designed to protect all of them,” she concludes.
If you spot a dead or distressed dugong, please call the EAD hotline on 800 5555.
Harriet Shephard is an Abu Dhabi-based copywriter and freelance journalist with a particular focus on fitness, travel and lifestyle, which, along with good food, also happen to be her main passions when she's not typing away at her laptop.