Encountering Dugong in the Morotai Island Waters
THE sun had not yet set completely when Mulyadi Karim Sudin, 37, was busy preparing a boat with a 25-horsepower outboard engine. That night, Thursday, October 26, like the previous night, Mulyadi went out to sea to check his keramba (cages) of goropa or grouper fish. “If you want to see dugong, it’s best when the moon is bright,” said the resident of Galo-Galo Island, Morotai, North Maluku to Tempo that joined him fishing.
Dugong (Dugong dugon) or dehele in the local language—a seagrass-eating marine mammal—can still be found in the waters near small, uninhabited islands in the southwest of Morotai Island, North Maluku. According to Mulyadi, 25 years ago, dugongs were seen almost every day all along the coast of Morotai Island. They could reach around three meters long, and residents could see them from the beach. These marine mammals often appeared in the late afternoon and evening.
Now, Mulyadi said, dugongs no longer appear every day. Locals can only see them at certain times, and only in certain areas of Morotai Island, such as the eastern, southern, and western regions. They only appear one or two at a time and are less than three meters in length. “In some locations they are even smaller,” said Mulyadi.
After sunset, the boat began to move away from Galo-Galo Island to the east. The weather was amicable, and the sea was calm, bathed in the light of the full moon. Mulyadi was accompanied by his two cousins, Bais Kompania and Rasyid. The three of them own some grouper cages near the uninhabited Galo-Galo Kecil Island.
Their keramba are about two kilometers from Galo-Galo. Their first goal is to take the fish traps that had been previously set up. The traps are about a kilometer apart. “Many fishermen looking for squid come across dugong. I also often see them,” said Mulyadi, who goes by the nickname Mulkam, while steering his boat.
Mulyadi then turned off the engine and lowered the anchor. The waters about a kilometer from Galo-Galo Island are four to five meters deep. You can clearly see the white sand of the seabed covered with seagrass, similar to grass and ivy plants. “We stop here,” said Mulyadi. As it turned out, this was a hotspot for waiting for those shy creatures that are sensitive to sound.
Almost three quarters of an hour had passed. Time passed unnoticed because the Internet could still be accessed. Suddenly, about 40 meters in front of the boat, there was a movement in the calm, still water. Two round figures emerged from beneath the surface. It was around 8:34pm.
A carcass of a 4-meter male dugong is found on the beach of Doku Mira village, East Morotai, Morotai Island, North Maluku, September 10. Special
Gray-brown in color, the two dugongs were clearly visible under the moonlight. Even though only their heads were visible, Bais recognized them as two dugongs that fishermen had often encountered this year. “There are scars on one of the dugong. So maybe it’s the same dugong,” said Bais, 39. These two dugongs, believed to be a mother and calf, have also been seen on the islands of Lolabe Kecil, Lolabe Besar, Kolorai, and Ngele-Ngele, which are the locations of seagrass beds.
It was not clear exactly how many times those dugongs surfaced. It only took about two seconds for them to jut their heads above the surface to take a breath. They can hold their breath underwater for eight minutes. Because they do not have gills, dugongs come up to the surface to breathe air. This went on more than 20 minutes before the two swam east.
“Usually these dugongs swim towards Galo-Galo Kecil Island. There are seagrass beds there,” said Mulyadi. The location of these dugongs surfaced is a 110-hectare seagrass bed. To the east of it is a seaweed cultivation area developed by Galo-Galo residents. This seagrass bed is also a fishing area for fishermen from Galo-Galo, Waringin and Pilowo villages on Morotai Island.
Another seagrass bed is found in the west of Galo-Galo. This one is smaller, covering around 20 hectares. The waters there have weak currents, making it a suitable area for seaweed cultivation. Galo-Galo Island is a tourist village in the South Morotai subdistrict. In 2020, the population of the island, which is about 13 kilometers northwest of Daruba—the capital of South Morotai—was 562 people.
After observing those dugongs, the boat sails for the keramba. There are two fish cages covering an area of around 100 square meters. There are at least 87 grouper that are six to seven months old inside. Raised groupers are usually harvested in October. The price is about Rp120,000 (around US$7.8) per kilogram. According to Bais, each grouper weighs three to four kilograms. The fish are sold to brokers from Surabaya in East Java for export to Singapore and Taiwan.
Mulyadi, Bais and Rasyid said that they have never caught a dugong. They know that dugongs are protected wildlife. There is a public notification board at the Galo-Galo Port that displays a ban on catching dugongs. “I have chased away dugongs that approached the keramba,” said Bais. “I threw stones at them.”
Another fisherman, Sakir H. Arsyad, 51, told Tempo that in the 2000s, it was very easy for fishermen to spot dugong. When the sea was calm, he could see them coming from behind the island. More than three dugongs would play in the seagrass beds. “In the past, if we wanted to see dugong, we just had to wait for low tide. There was no need to wait for a full moon,” said this fisherman from Pilowo village, South Morotai.
Dugongs in Morotai are no more than two meters long and weigh over 200 kilograms. In the past, said Sakir, dugongs were hunted by fishermen because some parts of their bodies were believed to have special qualities, such as being able to ward off black magic. Apart from that, their teeth and bones were sold as souvenirs to families off the island. “But since there was a ban from the village (authority), people no longer catch them,” said Sakir.
Galo-Galo Village Head Mugiat Kudo said that even though dugongs are often seen not far from the village, people never disturb them, let alone try to catch them. People choose to let them play in the waters around the village because they can serve as markers for the depth of the sea. “Dugongs are only active at a depth of 20 meters. So it makes it easier for people to see the depth of the water,” said Mugiat.