The Dungong

The Dungong - Krabi Magazine article

Krabi is well-known for its beautiful dive sites and rich marine life that lurks just below the surface at any one of the numerous islands through the Bay of Phang Nga and beyond Krabi’s borders towards Trang Province and further – eventually to the Malaysian border. What most people fail to realise, however, is that this area of the Andaman Sea is home to one of the planet’s most endangered sea mammals – the gentle dugong.

Krabi Magazine were invited along by the Phuket Marine Biology Center to get up close and personal with the last remaining population of dugongs in Thailand – at least, as close as we could get with a two seater Tecnam flying at 300 feet above the turbid waters of Koh Libong in the Trang province.

For the last 6 years Kongkiat Kittiwattanawong of the PMBC has teamed up with Chiang Mai-based pilot Eduardo Loigorri of the Flying Scouts to fly up and down the coast of Trang and Krabi recording dugong and Porpoise numbers. Although this may seem like a strange way to record marine life, once up in the plane it’s easy to see why this is the most viable method.

The dugongs are clearly visible from the air, seen congregating in groups of up to 20 individuals, often with calves in tow. Their bright pink skin stands out in sharp contrast to the emerald green waters of the Libong Straits and the shallow water of the sea grass beds is their favourite feeding area.

While the PMBC team take their task very seriously, I couldn’t help but feel there was an element of good natured fun and excitement. The prospect of hanging out of a single propeller plane with the doors removed, flying as low as possible often banking sharply to circle a spotted dugong is not for the feint hearted. I rose to the occasion though, donning a life jacket and nervously strapped the flimsy seat belt across myself – remembering Ed’s safety briefing – “If we go down over the sea the windscreen will smash and we’ll probably die. If you do manage to escape death do not inflate your life jacket until out of the plane door – otherwise you’ll never get out and will drown”.  Charming.

We taxied to the end of the runway and courteously allowed an Air Asia jet from Bangkok to land before our take-off. Ed made some last minute engine checks then explained to me that the wind was so strong that we were right on the limit of what was considered prudent to take off in. I grin bravely and clutch my expensive camera tightly as Ed tells me that “it’s going to be rough!”

The small plane takes off like a paper kite on a blustery day. We bank sharply and Ed points the tiny propellor towards the nearby coast. At this point my trepidation disappears and I’m instantly captured by the scene before me. Trang province is spread out below and I enjoy a birds-eye view of the patchwork of rubber plantations, palm forests, villages, rivers and shrimp farms that spread away before me as far as the eye can see.

As Ed promised, it was a bumpy flight but as soon as we were over the water the wind calmed and we got down to the business of tight u-shaped search patterns over the pre-designated area. Within minutes, we spotted our first dugongs and Ed marked them on the survey plan before him on his iPad. Then we spotted more and more. They were indeed spread out all over the sea bed feeding on their favourite snack of sea grass. I snapped photos hurriedly, though i am not ashamed to admit they were mostly blurred and out of focus – it was, after all, my first time hanging out of a plane snapping photos at 50 knots of a pink dot in the water 300 feet below me. All the wonderful photos in this article are kindly provided by Tom Potosit.

Dungong in Krabi

Once safely back on the ground, I spoke to Eduardo and Kongkiat about the project and the dangers facing our dwindling dugong population. They explained to me that the construction of a new deep sea port near the main dugong habitat is a cause for major concern as the shipping lane will effectively cut right through the middle of the main sea grass bed.

Coupled with a ballooning fishing industry, along with economic and tourism development up and down the coast, the future does not bode well for this endangered sea mammal. On a brighter note though, this year numbers recorded are up and also the number of mothers with calves sighted has increased from previous years. So although the future of Thailand’s dugongs  is fragile, individuals like Eduardo and Kongkiat are doing their best to bring the plight of this gentle sea creature to the public’s attention. They work closely with locals to record dugong sitings and the unfortunate deaths that happen throughout the year as these hapless creatures become entangled in fishing nets or are struck by boat propellors.

So while it’s unlikely that any of you readers will ever see a dugong (unless you own your own small plane or helicopter), be safe in the knowledge that they are out there and we are doing our best to preserve them for future generations.

Special thanks go to Tom Potosit for providing photographs – Tom Potisit Photography, Kongkiat Kittiwattanawong of the Phuket Marine Biology Center for inviting us to be part of this inspirational project, and Eduardo Loigorri of the Flying Scouts – NOK Aviation News

By Stewart Whitfield
Photos by Tom Potosit