Crying Dugongs and Ocean Encounters in Southeast Asia

In 1776, Philipp Ludwig Statius Muller, a German entomologist, published a supplement to his translation of Carl Linnaeus’s Natursystem. Within Muller’s supplement was the first scientific classification of the dugong (Trichecus dugon). Muller had not actually seen this weighty marine mammal, but based on notes and descriptions he taxonomized the dugong within the following system: order Sirenia, family Dugongidae, subfamily Dugonginae, and genus Dugong. He also marked its range stretching from the Cape of Good Hope to the Philippines. While there are three other living species in the order Sirenia, all manatees, the dugong is the only one that inhabits the waters of the Indo-Pacific Ocean. Within this vast geography, scientists have determined that the dugong population of Southeast Asia is genetically distinct. Since Muller’s classification in 1776, the dugong has become the sole surviving member of its family, subfamily, and genus.

Sketch of dugong by Sandra L. Hussar, 1971.

Sketch of dugong by Sandra L. Hussar, 1971.

As curious creatures, Southeast Asian dugongs offer new ways of thinking about the enduring, if troubling, relationship between humans and oceans. This essay narrates the story of a single dugong that in 1934 was captured and placed in captivity in the Netherlands Indies. In one sense, this story enriches our understanding of the historical linkages between society and nature, drawing special attention to how these links imperil dugong populations. And from this nearly century-old incident, we can also reflect on the more contemporary situation of these plant-eating marine mammals in the face of mounting human activities and climate change.

Lady of the Sea

On July 6, 1934, just off the northeastern tip of Celebes Island in the Netherlands Indies, a few fishermen caught a “perempoen laut.” While the fishermen were Minahassan, a local ethnic group, the perempoen laut, or lady of the sea, was a hefty dugong. Based on local accounts, the catch was unintentional and unexpected. The Minahassans were fishing in the Bay of Kema when their nets entangled the “legendary creature” (likely wallowing in the shallow waters feeding on seagrass).1 They pulled the dugong close to their boats, towing it to shore where word was sent for Van Diest, the local Dutchman who served as superintendent of the Kema police.

It was through Van Diest that the dugong entered a colonial system of commerce, science, and spectacle. He purchased the “young lady” for five guilders from the local fishermen and then arranged for a truck to transport it to Menado, the major port city at the northern end of Celebes about twenty miles away. But before commencing the overland journey to Menado, the dugong had to be carried in from sea. Wallowing still, but with a noticeably injured tail, the “mermaid” was in the water surrounded by prahus, or small canoes. The local correspondent for the Soerabaiasch Handelsblad reported, “We were alongside the mermaid who appeared to gulp some air.”

Samuel Fallour’s Sirenne from Ambon, 1718.

Samuel Fallour’s Sirenne from Ambon, 1718.

Through this close encounter with the dugong, the journalist’s perception of the “perempoen laut” swiftly evolved. This was not a “charming young woman,” but instead “an animal that very much resembled a small, rose-colored whale.” Drawing on descriptions from an earlier Dutch resident, the local reporter confirmed several features of the dugong, which have inspired the meaning behind its vernacular and scientific name (dugong is Filipino, but it is derived from duyong, which is Malay and means lady of the sea). Based on the writer’s intimate observations of the dugong from the vantage of their canoe, the following features proved true: it had a head like a calf with short fins and the “breasts of a woman;” and, the dugong sighed, wailed, and “wept as someone sobbing with tears coming from her eyes.” Within touching distance of this crying creature, the reporter recorded these emotional expressions as the dugong became aware of its predicament: captured, captive, and moving closer to the beach where Van Diest was waiting with his truck.

As the dugong neared shore, more details about its body, behavior, and cultural significance emerged. Physically, admitted the reporter, she seemed like a “portly young woman” only because of her “white non-hairy skin.” This observation was paired with the fact that the dugong began to visibly cry, with tears streaming down its face. The locals who had also started to close in on the crying creature were determined to capture these watery drops. The Minhassans had with them pieces of “cotton cloth” to soak up the dugong’s tears, which they believed were a kind of love potion. This was a belief, which continues to resonate across Indonesia and Malaysia today.

After much commotion leading to the shore, the dugong was eventually loaded into the back of the truck and transported to Menado. From the beach, the caravan proceeded through the town of Kema on its way to the residency’s main port twenty miles away. For local Minahassans and others, for sure, seeing a dugong in the back of a truck was an unusual spectacle. Upon arriving in Menado, the dugong was kept in a sheltered part of the harbor where it awaited the first KPM steamer heading to Batavia. After a week, this captured marine mammal caught a ride on the Melchior Treub and was transferred alive to the Laboratory for the Investigation of the Sea in Batavia (Jakarta).

KPM steamer on the Dutch Batavia line. Source: Wikimedia.

KPM steamer on the Dutch Batavia line. Source: Wikimedia.

From the waters of Kema to the streets of Batavia, this specific dugong became the first of its kind kept at the city’s public aquarium. It arrived on July 11, 1934. One reporter noted the rarity of the aquarium’s newest captive: “for most Batavians, this is an animal that we have never seen.”2 But despite the absence of actual prior observation, the available information about the dugong’s life, diet, and ecology were surprisingly accurate: it was a “peaceful herbivore,” which ate mainly seagrass and lived near the coast because of the abundance of food. Scientists at the aquarium also determined that the specimen they had was young, weighing about 600 kg and measuring 1.5 meters in length. In a matter of days, this “perempoen laut” began to attract crowds, drawing “huge amounts of attention.” On July 22 more than 1,600 visitors came to see the aquarium’s plant-eating mammal up close.

What seemed like a promising career as a popular aquarium exhibit quickly changed: less than two weeks after arriving in the city, the dugong was dead. The speculation was that the creature’s tail injury, which occurred during its entanglement with the fishing nets in the Bay of Kema, was the cause of death. With the specimen dead but on hand, the scientists at the Laboratory for the Investigation of the Sea were prepared and determined to figure out more details about this rare species as well as pinpoint its exact cause of death. While a wounded or infected tail may have ultimately killed Batavia’s first captive dugong in 1934, the tragedy of this marine mammal’s colonial life speaks pointedly to the perils of preserving nature for society and science. Through the circuits of this single dugong, we can see how attempts to keep and display ocean life can ironically kill it. And while the effects of human activities demand our critical attention in the present, the roots of these consequences are equally evident in ocean encounters of the past.

Less than a century later, today’s Southeast Asian dugong is on the verge of extinction. As the planet’s only strictly marine herbivorous mammal, it might soon go the way of its relative the Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas). That pacific creature vanished from the world in 1768, less than three decades after it was first scripted into science.

Geographical Range of the Dugong. Source: Sandra L. Husar, 1978.

Geographical Range of the Dugong. Source: Sandra L. Husar, 1978.

But if the dugong disappears within this century, it won’t be because of European naturalists and Russian fur traders. Rather than outright hunting, the causes will come from human activities and the impact of these activities on the dugong’s food supply and habitat. Like the Steller’s sea cow, the dugong grazes on fields of seagrass located in shallow seas and sheltered bays. But climate change is affecting the presence and extent of these nutrient-rich plant systems. Warming waters are reducing the range of certain seagrass species and thus reshaping the composition of tropical meadows. And while there are 12 genera of seagrass, dugongs feed on species from only two, Halophila and Haladule, which are highly digestible and nutritious. The effects of climate change on seagrass diversity therefore imperil the future of the dugong.

Without ample food, these voracious herbivores become difficult to sustain. The same is true for their habitat: without it, the dugong’s story begins to near its unnatural end. Habitat loss is key to their decline, and it will be central to their disappearance. As large grazers who eat only seagrass, and particular types of seagrass at that, they spend much of their time hugging the coast and wallowing in its waters. Consequently, their habitat is limited to a tropical arc of areas with extensive seagrass beds. While dugongs feed on these saltwater fields, they also use them as mating and calving grounds.

Human activities have wreaked havoc on the dugong’s world. Shrimpers, trawlers, and fishers are ravaging Southeast Asia’s seagrass beds with their cages, grates, and nets. Fueling the recent boom in the global seafood industry, more than half the world’s motorized fishing vessels operate in Asian waters. Miners and dredgers are degrading the dugong’s habitat, too. Their work scars up the fields and contributes to sediment build up, resulting in seagrass loss and disruptions to the dugong’s life cycle.

The Halodule seagrass provides a main source of the dugong's diet, habitat, and breeding grounds. Source: Wikimedia.

The Halodule seagrass provides a main source of the dugong’s diet, habitat, and breeding grounds. Source: Wikimedia.

This is where we are at today. The dugong is on the brink; it is on the edge of joining the unfortunate likes of the dodo. The population of these plant-eaters has decreased because of low birth rates, long lives, and the scale and scope of human-induced pressures on the ocean environment.

Unlike the threats to other marine mammals, industrial hunting is not the gravest risk to the dugong, though isolated fishing for dugongs does still continue in Southeast Asian waters. With the rise of marine protected areas, wildlife conservation laws, and restricted fishing zones, killing dugongs is, ironically, a dying occupation. But what is not fading are the numbers of seafood consumers, fishmeal users, and carbon dioxide contributors. As a plant-eater who inhabits a limited area of ocean space, the dugong’s peril is rooted in society’s crimes against nature. In the words of one scientist, “there are many reasons for fighting climate change. Securing the future of the dugong, a wondrous and compelling creature, has emerged as a possible new one.”

Therefore, in saving today’s dugongs and protecting their habitat and sole source of food, we might weigh a broader history of human-ocean encounters and how such encounters have shaped the current state of these threatened mammals. Too often, but generally for good reason, efforts to understand the rise and fall of marine species have focused on the obvious crimes against nature such as commercial fishing and industrial hunting. But sometimes, like in the case of the crying dugong, the causes of species decline involve a complexity of factors. Indeed, for endemic creatures that live long with strict diets and low birth rates, the rise in public aquariums and private water parks could have a consequential effect on their natural futures.

Stories of Southeast Asian dugongs, whether in the 1930s or today, encourage us to think beyond the more measurable cases of human impact like commercial fishing and warming waters. Although the tears of the dugong suggest a tale of sorrow, they also offer us a way to reflect on the wider currents of human-ocean interactions and to imagine new understandings of society’s past and nature’s present.

Featured Image: Dugong, 2017. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Anthony Medrano is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation focuses on the interplay between fish, scientists, and the Southeast Asian Shelf in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Email.

  1. Descriptions of this incident come from “Menado-nieuws,” Soerabaiasch Handelsblad (6 July 1934): 3, 17. 

  2. Newspaper accounts at the time include “Zeemeerin at Aquarium,” Bataviaasch Nieuwsblad (12 July 1934): 3; “Een Zeekoe in Het Aquarium,” Het Nieuws Van Den Dag voor Nederlandsch-Indie (12 July 1934): 3; “De Zeekoe op Pasar Ikan,” Het Nieuws Van Den Dag voor Nederlandsch-Indie (23 July 1934): 3; and “De Zeekoe op Pasar-ikan,” Inidsche Courant (25 July 1934): 5. 

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