September 2013

The Dugong: Mermaid Myth, Modern Reality
September 2013

An illustration of a Dugong

Words Richard Boyle

"Over the tranquil sea of the Gulf of Mannar the morning breeze blew fresh. The blue unruffled sheet stretched to the low horizon where it met the vast immensity of the pastel sky, with its soft cloud masses as motionless as in a picture. It was a scene of breathless beauty, a glory of the firmament that whispered to the heart of man: It is God."

It was in such a rapturous fashion that the late Dr Richard Spittel, Sri Lanka's renowned wildlife conservationist, anthropologist, 
and surgeon, once described the Gulf of Mannar, a unique corner of the Indian Ocean nestling between northern 
Sri Lanka and the south-eastern tip of India. The tropical, sheltered waters provide a highly desirable habitat for a number of marine creatures, making it one of the richest coastal regions in Asia. In addition to the numerous species of fish - including sharks and stingrays - turtles, and an array of dolphins and whales, there is the intriguing, myth-laden, and highly endangered dugong, sadly an almost forgotten creature among Sri Lanka's fauna.

Dugong is derived from the Malay name for the animal, duyong, meaning "lady of the sea". In Sri Lanka it is commonly referred to as "sea-pig" (elsewhere as "sea-cow" even "sea-camel"), a translation of both the Sinhala name muda ura and Tamil name kadel pardi. It is termed thus due to its propensity to eat sea-grass - in the Gulf of Mannar the underwater pastures of the genus Cymodocea.

The dugong is an awkward looking animal with its somewhat elephant-like trunkless head - indeed it is a distant relative of the elephant, which makes it of added interest in the context of Sri Lanka's fauna - large horseshoe-shaped upper lip, and bulbous body. Rarely exceeding three metres in length, it belongs to Sirenia, an order of aquatic mammals with forelimbs modified as flippers and a horizontally-flattened tail. As with elephants the dugong's longevity is remarkable: the oldest recorded specimen reached the age of 73.

The female dugong displays extraordinary devotion towards her young, cradling them and suckling them - the teats are underneath the flipper - while simultaneously swimming in an upright position.

It is this endearing attribute, together with its near-human appearance and proportions when viewed from a distance, which almost certainly resulted in the dugong becoming the basis for mariners' tales of mermaids.

...It is not surprising that early mariners who caught a glimpse of this strange creature began to speculate on its identity
The mermaid, a beautiful girl to her waist but a fish from the waist down, and her male counterpart, the merman, are still among the most popular of legendary creatures, especially in Northern Europe. So it is of interest that during the past the Island and its surrounding sea, especially the Gulf of Mannar, were firmly linked with mermaid-lore and sightings of mermaid-like creatures.


The Gulf of Mannar was well frequented by sailing craft from time immemorial, so it is not surprising that early mariners who caught a glimpse of this strange creature began to speculate on its identity. Onescritus, a pilot in Alexander the Great's India expedition, was the first to refer to the abundance of herbivorous marine mammals in these waters. Subsequently, the existence of a sea creature with the aspect of a woman was recorded by Megasthenes, a Macedonian ambassador to India soon after Alexander's death.

The Portuguese cherished belief in the mermaid, for according to an annalist of the exploits of the Jesuits in India, seven were captured in the Gulf of Mannar in 1560. The Viceroy's physician who dissected the carcasses in Goa is quoted as having pronounced their internal structure to be "in all respects conformable to the human".

The Dutch were also inclined to believe in the existence of mermaids. Valentyn, a Dutch chaplain, gives detailed descriptions of them in his account of the Netherlands Possessions in the Indian Subcontinent (1727). He even relates several instances when mermaids were supposedly captured. One of these specimens "lived four days and seven hours, but refusing all food, died without leaving any intelligible account of herself".

Another Dutch chaplain, Baldaeus, was more down-to-earth when he wrote in 1703: "They have a peculiar fish (probably a sea-calf) of an amphibious nature; the females have breasts and give suck, and the flesh, when well-boiled, tastes not unlike our sturgeon, and might easily be mistaken for veal."

According to John Shaw, author of Speculum Mundi (1635), the song of the mermaid was not as tuneful as was popularly supposed, "But above all the Mermaids and Men-fish seem to me the most strange fish in the waters. Some have supposed them to be devils or spirits in regard to the whooping noise that they make."

This contradicts the older tradition, expressed so eloquently by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595):

Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on
a dolphin's back,
Uttering such dulcet and
harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil
at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid's music.

Remarkably, the range of the non-migratory dugong once extended from the Red Sea, Arabian coast and the east coast of Africa in the west, to the Solomon and Marshall Islands and New Caledonia in the east. Today it is confined in exceedingly small numbers to restricted areas in a range that spans the waters of 37 countries throughout the Indo-Pacific region, including 
Sri Lanka's Gulf of Mannar.

In addition to the Gulf, the dugong once populated the Island's east coast as Hugh Nevill notes in his journal, The Taprobanian (1885): "Off Batticaloa it is reported by fishermen to live permanently towards Vandeloos Bay, and it is occasionally caught in the outlet of the Batticaloa Lake. I have known stray specimens to be caught about Dondra and Matara."

The drastic reduction in the range of the dugong, as well as its uncertain survival as a species, is due mainly to its vulnerability. Being a slow-moving vegetarian that prefers localized habitats in shallow waters around bays and inlets, and with no means of defence, the dugong is a victim of pollution, accidental netting, and indiscriminate fishing. Apart from these factors, the dugong is a slow breeder, because the suckling of its young is a lengthy process.

Dugongs mostly feed at night, especially in areas where there is human interference with their activities. During the day, the dugong remains some distance out to sea, resting and keeping a watchful eye open for danger. Another reason why dugongs are seldom seen is that they breathe through their nostrils.


Sri Lanka cannot afford to lose the dugong, 
the mermaid of the Gulf of Mannar
So perfectly located are these openings that no other part of either the head or body breaks the water's surface when a surreptitious breath is taken. As the animal dives, the nostrils close automatically, and it can remain submerged for upwards of five minutes.

The dugong is a truly remarkable animal, yet awareness of its basic characteristics, and even existence in Sri Lankan waters, is badly lacking amongst both the local population and visitors. That it is shy, elusive, and thus cannot be easily observed, adds to the problem. Where marine mammals are concerned, the dugong is marginalised by the easier-to-observe whale and dolphin. Awareness programmes are, thankfully, being planned; of especial importance to fishermen although other conservation measures under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance are urgently required due to the dugong's highly endangered status. Sri Lanka cannot afford to lose the dugong, the mermaid of the Gulf of Mannar.


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    Dugong distribution in Sri Lanka

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    A MERMAID. From a Picture by Otto Sinding

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    A Sri Lanka stamp featuring the elusive Dugong

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    THE DUGONG.From Sir J. Emerson Tennent's 'Ceylon'.

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