Lone South African “paddling for the love of dugongs”

South African wildlife enthusiast Des Pollock has embarked on the journey of a lifetime – paddling in a kayak along the entire length of the Mozambican coast looking for dugongs, and trying to raise awareness of the plight of these highly endangered marine mammals.

Dugongs are sirenians, an order of mammals that also includes the three species of manatee living in the Atlantic and the Americas. Dugongs are closely related to the much larger Steller’s sea cow, once abundant in the north Pacific, but hunted to extinction in the 18th century.

Pollock, who describes himself as an eco-warrior, is seeking to document dugong habitats, and migration routes all along the Mozambican coast. Only one breeding population of dugongs is known in Mozambican waters. This is a population of two or three hundred individuals in the Bazaruto archipelago, off the coast of Inhambane province.

Dugongs once lived off Inhaca island, in the bay of Maputo. But the last Inhaca dugong was shot by a spear fisherman about three years ago. The Linga-Linga peninsula, just north of Inhambane city is now thought to be the southernmost tip of the dugong’s range.

Pollock started his trip in June, at Ponta de Ouro, on Mozambique’s border with the South African province of Kwazulu-Natal. He got as far as Beira before he had to fly back to South Africa, renew his Mozambican visa and obtain a new kayak.

Within a fortnight, he intends to be back in Beira, despite the risk of ambush by gunmen of the former rebel movement Renamo, on the stretch of the main north-south highway between the Save river and the small town of Muxungue. From Beira, he will complete his journey to the border with Tanzania.

His trip has the support of Mozambican and South African marine biologists. Initially he funded it entirely himself, but since the appearance of favourable articles in some of the South African media, he has obtained some corporate sponsorship.

Pollock expects to cover an average of 20 kilometres a day – although he is heavily dependent on the currents and the weather. Sometimes he travels as little as seven kilometres a day, and sometimes he manages 50.

He told AIM he often spends the night with communities of subsistence farmers or fishermen, whom he found unfailingly friendly. Where there is no sign of human inhabitants, he pitches his tent on the beach. He carries some food, but largely depends on catching fish and shellfish.

During the journey he has had what he calls “a few near death experiences”. At the mouth of the Limpopo his kayak capsized, but he was reunited with it on the beach, and suffered no loss of equipment. The waves at the river mouth forced him to change his plans and paddle up the river, crossing it at Xai-Xai, and then hitchhiking overland to the resort of Chidenguele, where he resumed his journey up the coast.

So far, he has only spotted dugongs once, at Bartolomeu Dias, in Inhambane. But the point of the venture is not just to look for dugongs, but to investigate where there is an abundance of sea grass meadows on which the animals can feed, and where they might find safe havens. He hopes to make a rapid assessment of all the locations he passes through.

Although Bazaruto is the only known breeding site, most of the Mozambican coast is a dugong migration route. As Pollock travels up the coast, he could well find dugongs at the Primeiras and Segundas Islands in Nampula province, where the animals are known to feed.

Dugongs are protected in Mozambique, and Pollock praised the conservation efforts at the Bazaruto Marine Reserve. But outside the reserve they are vulnerable, despite their protected status.

And the dugongs are migratory, returning to Bazaruto to breed. Fishermen sometimes catch dugongs in their net as by-catch, and then kill and eat them.

“Fishermen are aware of the law, but they either don’t understand it, or they ignore it”, Pollock remarked. “There’s a serious lack of education”.

He hopes that more quantitative data, provided by research such as his own, will help strengthen the legislation to protect dugongs. But any legislation will need serious policing.

Pollock hopes that his kayak expedition will be the prelude to a full marine survey on board a yacht, for which he needs to raise 70,000 US dollars. From the yacht, a passive acoustic device can be placed in the water to track dugongs. The animals make a characteristic chirp under water, and the sound is different between juveniles and adults. “So this can be used to make estimates of population movements”, Pocock says.

Pocock is documenting his work on a Facebook page entitled “Paddling for the Love of Dungongs”, which contains some of the photos and videos he has been taking during his trip, as well as other information relevant to dugong conservation.

Pocock may not have seen many dugongs so far, but his lone voyage has been rich in encounters with other marine life, including humpback whales, manta rays and three species of sea turtles.

His diary for one day in June remarks “On a deep sunrise, I see humpback whales full body breeching in front of my tent – wow! What a good morning in Mozambique!”

Post published in: Africa News

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