The Crying Dugong: The historical roots of human impact on marine life and the challenges it faces today

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In the blue-green waters along Thailand’s Andaman Sea coastline, resides a mystical and enchanting creature called the Dugong.

These gentle marine mammals, often compared to mermaids in folklore, symbolize the extraordinary diversity of ocean life and the challenges it currently faces.

The plight of the Dugong compels us to reflect deeply on our relationship with the oceans and our responsibility as stewards of these vital ecosystems.

As a storyteller, few narratives have resonated with me as profoundly as that of the Dugong and the legendary tale of the Lady of the Sea. Through their struggle for survival, these graceful beings beckon us to delve into the depths of their history, drawing us into a world where myth and reality intertwine and where the fate of a species hangs in the balance.
This is the story of a single dugong captured almost a century ago and placed in captivity in the Netherlands Indies.

On July 6, 1934, just off the northeastern tip of Celebes Island in the Netherlands Indies, a few fishermen caught a “perempoen laut” or lady of the sea.

According to local accounts, this particular Dugong was described as rather hefty. It is believed that it became entangled in the fishermen’s nets in the Bay of Kema while foraging for seagrass in the shallow waters.

Upon discovering the Dugong in their nets, the fishermen towed it to shallower waters and sought out Van Diest, a local Dutchman who served as the superintendent of the Kema police. Upon learning about this unusual catch, Van Diest purchased the Dugong from the fishermen for five guilders.

Arrangements were made to transport the Dugong to Menado, the major port city. However, due to its size and apparent tail injury, the Dugong had to be carried from the sea. As the Dugong was being transported, it appeared to be in discomfort and showed signs of distress. A local journalist reporting for the Soerabaiasch Handelsblad recounted the scene, noting, “We were alongside the mermaid, who seemed to be struggling for air.”

The reporter was able to confirm several features of the Dugong, drawing inspiration from descriptions provided by earlier Dutch residents. The name “Dugong” originates from the Filipino language, derived from the Malay word ” duyong, ” which translates to “lady of the sea.” Notably, the Dugong possesses a head resembling that of a calf, short fins, and “breasts” that resemble those of a woman.

As the Dugong grappled with the realization of its predicament—captured, captive, and nearing the unfamiliar confines of the beach—it emitted sounds that resembled sobbing. When it reached the shore, tears were streaming down its face. This sight stirred local beliefs regarding the purported magical properties of the Dugong’s tears, a belief still held today across Indonesia and Malaysia.

The Dugong was transported by truck and steamship to Batavia (now Jakarta). Arriving on July 11, 1934, the Dugong became the first of its kind to be housed at the city’s public aquarium.

For many Batavians, the sight of such a creature was entirely novel, as one reporter remarked, “For most Batavians, this is an animal that we have never seen.” Scientists at the aquarium closely observed the Dugong, noting its tranquil, herbivorous nature. They determined that the specimen was relatively young, weighing approximately 600 kilograms and measuring 1.5 meters long.

The arrival of the Dugong quickly captured the public’s imagination, drawing crowds of curious onlookers. On July 22, the aquarium saw an unprecedented surge in visitors, with over 1,600 people flocking to glimpse the plant-eating mammal up close. However, the Dugong’s promising tenure as a popular aquarium exhibit was short-lived. Less than two weeks after its arrival, tragedy struck as the Dugong succumbed to death. Speculation arose that the creature’s tail injury, sustained during its entanglement in the fishermen’s nets, ultimately led to its demise.

This heartbreaking tale of a single Dugong trapped in the colonial web of commerce, science, and entertainment starkly illustrates the lethal consequences of attempting to capture and display marine creatures. It serves as a sobering reminder that the challenges we confront today regarding human impact on the oceans have deep historical roots, tracing back to early encounters with marine life.

The Dugong is the only herbivorous marine mammal. These creatures rely on seagrass that grows in shallow waters and protected bays for their survival. Unfortunately, the presence and extent of seagrass ecosystems are declining due to the adverse effects of climate change. In addition to the loss of habitat and a decline in their food supply, fishing activities in Asian waters are also contributing to their vulnerable situation. These fishing activities constitute a significant portion of the global seafood industry. Ultimately, the Dugong’s peril can be attributed to humanity’s crimes against the natural world.

If ever there was a good reason to prioritize conservation, it would be to secure the future of the Dugong. Therefore, I sincerely hope that this tragic story and the tears shed by the Dugong were not in vain. Instead, I hope it helps us gain a fresh perspective on society’s past and nature’s present.

Let the Dugong’s plight inspire us to imagine a future where our oceans thrive and stories of tragedy are transformed into narratives of resilience and hope.

Sources:
Descriptions of the incident – “Menado Nieuws,” Soerabaiasch Handelsblad (6 July 1934).
Newspaper accounts at the time include
“Zeemeerin at Aqaurium,” Bataviaasch Nieuwsblad (12 July 1934)
“Een Zeekoe in Het Aquarium,” Het Nieuws Van Den Dag voor Nederlandsch-Indie (12 July 1934)
and “De Zeekoe op Pasarikan,” Inidsche Courant (25 July 1934)
Edge Effects – Oct. 2019

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