Photograph by Douglas David SEIFERT
Read Caption

The dugong, a distant relative to the elephant, is similarly a gentle herbivore. It is often reocgnized for being more closely related to the manatee.

Photograph by Douglas David SEIFERT

Where to Swim With the Sea Creatures That Inspired Mermaids

The dugong is said to have influenced ancient mermaid legends.

A lesser known cousin of the manatee, the dugong (Malay for “lady of the sea”) is said to have inspired ancient mermaid legends. “Seeing dugongs in the wild is an extremely special experience,” says environmental scientist Erina Molina, who got hooked on life under the sea when she snorkeled for the first time at age 15. Now, a decade later, this National Geographic explorer is dedicated to preserving the wonders of the marine world; she enlists fishers of the Philippines to help track dugongs. Here she shares tips on how to encounter this vulnerable herbivore.

Where to Go

Molina recommends two spots where it’s very likely for snorkelers and divers to come face to face with dugongs. In the crystalline waters of Calauit Island, Philippines, locals lead conservation-minded tours that often include an appearance by Aban, a sea cow celebrity. “The best time to see dugongs here is from March to early June, when the water is calm and clear,” Molina says. In Egypt, at the lagoon of Abu Dabbab, abundant seagrass sustains dugongs and giant green sea turtles.

What to Do

When swimming with dugongs, go in small groups of four or five and limit encounters to 15 minutes. Keep a safe distance—around 15 feet away—and resist the urge to touch an animal. Instead, Molina advises, “keep still and be quiet.” If you’re snorkeling, move your fins slowly to avoid slapping the water. As long as they don’t feel disturbed, dugongs will keep munching on seagrass and providing great photo ops. [Read more tips for better wildlife encounters.]

Ways to Help

Don’t buy products made from dugongs (leather, charms, jewelry, traditional medicine). They are strictly regulated, and in some cases banned, by an international treaty. To help keep coastal waters clean, avoid single-use plastics.

Is it a Mermaid? Or a Dugong? This large vegetarian mammal is a relative of the manatee and is thought to have inspired the myths behind mermaids
This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.
Writer Katie Knorovsky previously worked at National Geographic Traveler magazine as an editor and currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Follow her travels on Twitter @TravKatieK.