The Dugong (Dugong dugon), sometimes referred to as a sea cow, is the only true marine mammalian herbivore. It is a strange looking creature with a head designed to ‘vacuum’ seagrass off the sea floor and a dolphin-like tail. It is thought that the legend of the mermaid came about after sailors who had spent too long at sea, spied the dugong and thought they were beautiful women with fish tails. Its closest living relative is the manatee – a freshwater version of the Dugong. Despite appearances they are not so closely related to other sea mammals, rather more related to elephants.
The dugong has been hunted for its meat and oil for hundreds of years, and is particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic factors such as habitat degradation. They are an internationally recognised threatened species and the coastal waters around northern Australia provide a habitat for some of the only substantial populations remaining. Recent estimates suggest that there are approximately 14,400 dugong in the Shark Bay/Ningaloo Reef/Exmouth Gulf region, the majority being found in the Shark Bay area.
Although they are social animals, Dugong are generally found in pairs or on their own due to the inability of seagrass beds to support large groups. They are long-lived and have been found to live to be over 70 years of age. Because of their size (can grow up to 3m) they have few natural predators but their young can be vulnerable to killer whales, sharks and crocodiles.