The Thailand Island-Hopping adventure continues on Ko Libong.
It’s like a manatee, they tell us. A plump, lumbering mammal that snuffles along the sea bottom, eating vegetarian meals.
Anyone we ask tells us we will be lucky to see one, but I’d say the dugong is the lucky one. Their numbers were nearly wiped out in these parts and our boat captain/guide tells us 18 of the last 20 times he’s gone out they’ve seen them. They are far easier to find in artwork and logos as Trang province has adopted them as a sort of mascot. A similar thing happened to the endangered (and once feared) Gurney’s Pitta in southern Thailand. Not long after a horrified birdwatcher recognized one on a spit, the rare bird went from random jungle menu item to annual festival icon. People can change; endangered species can be saved.
Our boat captian, Bung, is a mild-mannered local, barefoot and relaxed as he manipulates the massive, noisy engine and its long “tail” with the propeller on the end. (“Bung” is an honorific title for Muslims similar to the Thais’ “Khun,” but he prefers it to his real name which is “luke-ma” meaning “puppy.”)
Bung takes us out past the southern point of the island and angles toward the open sea. I’m wondering where we’re going and about to ask when he kills the engine and we drift. This is it. This is the magic spot of open water where the dugong might appear as it waits for the tide to roll in. They start feeding in this patch of open water that doesn’t look any different from anywhere else along the coast. From here they move to the west into waters that are inaccessible to them when the tide is out. They eat the plants that grow here in the shallows.
“When I was a kid, I used to eat dugong,” Bung admits. “Until I was about 10, then everyone stopped.” There were more people then on the island, and they were poor. Today the population is much lower, and beyond the handful of resorts, the primary industries are fishing and rubber-tree plantations.
Something breaks the surface of the water behind us and when we turn it plunges quickly back under the reflecting sky. “Tao,” he says. Turtle. A short while later we watch a long fish races across the surface of the sea like someone skipped a rock, chasing the smaller fish. Extraordinary!
Another splash and turn of a fin. Turtle. We remain squinting into the slow undulating reflection of the sky.
Then there is a hiss of air off to the left, like a snorkeler just resurfaced with a lungful of spent air. Our eyes find the tiny spray of water off in the distance. Then the body of the dugong curls up through surface air, a glint of light off its wet skin, and rolls back under in just a second. A dugong. In less than a half hour of waiting.
The dugong is, in fact, related to the manatee, and both are related to the elephant. National Geographic tells us the dugong may have been “the inspiration for ancient seafaring tales of mermaids and sirens” but this tells us less about the appearance of dugongs than it does about the effects of loneliness on men at sea without women.
We see two more dugongs (or the same one) surface in the space of the next half hour, along with three more turtle sightings. The dugong, says Bung, can stay underwater for up to an hour. If that was true or nearly true, there were three dugongs we weren’t going to hang around to see again. (As it turns out it’s six minutes. Nevertheless, they were either exceptional breath holders or we were consistently looking the wrong direction.)
We headed around the end of the island to the national park headquarters where park rangers were riding in motor-powered parachutes to survey the land. Unconventional, and I looked back at Bung to see if he was joking about who they were. I admit it would be an effective low-budget method of doing what a helicopter could do.
Out in the middle of the water – and no doubt connected to the land or its own little island during low tide – was a collection of trees submerged halfway into the sea. Colonies of birds took shelter there on a spit of sand and among the branches. Egrets and herons sat in the trees, an occasional kingfisher. The sound of the engine made the spindly-legged gathering of sandpipers and plovers suddenly nervous and they took flight and circled in a massive flock until we had passed.
On our way back to Libong Beach Resort we stopped to drift in the shallow waters where I could see the plant life the dugongs like so much along the bottom. A fishing village lies at the end of what must be a very shallow bay; an absurdly long dock reaches all the way across its center presumably out to a point where one can still land a boat during low tide. Overlooking it all is a green-capped thrust of limestone karst standing like a monolith at the end of the island. The waves slapped and sucked at the dark hollows along the waterline. We sat quietly, enjoyed a bit of fried rice that the resort had sent with us, but we never saw another dugong. The wind and the waves had already started to pick up, and we paused again at our first stopping point in the open water before deciding we’d have to be satisfied with what we had for the day.