Calauit Island in Palawan, Philippines, is a hidden gem for divers seeking a unique and unforgettable experience: diving with dugongs. Dugongs, also known as sea cows, are gentle marine mammals that are closely related to manatees. In the Philippines, dugongs are considered a critically endangered species due to habitat loss and hunting.
However, Calauit Island is home to a healthy population of dugongs, making it an ideal destination for divers looking to encounter these gentle giants in their natural habitat.
Scuba diving with dugongs is a truly magical experience that allows you to witness their grace and beauty up close. In this post, I will share with you my personal experience diving with dugongs in Calauit Island and why it is a must-try experience for any avid diver.
What are dugongs?
Dugongs (Dugong dugon) are marine mammals belonging to the order Sirenia. They are known for their unique physical appearance, with a large, streamlined body that is grey-brown in color, and a fluked tail that propels them through the water.
Because they graze on seagrasses, dugongs are frequently referred to as “sea cows.” These aquatic grasslike plants grow in shallow, warm water on a sandy sea floor. Dugongs can consume up to 40 kilograms of vegetation per day.
The size and weight can vary depending on their geographic location and the availability of food. Dugongs can grow up to 3 meters in length and weigh up to 500 kg.
Dugongs are social animals and can be found in groups or as solitary individuals. They interact with other dugongs through vocalizations and physical contact, such as rubbing their bodies together. Dugongs are generally shy and elusive towards humans but can be curious and approachable in certain situations.
They are frequently confused for manatees because of their appearance. Dugongs are similar to manatees in their vegetarian diet, streamlined body shape, and slow-moving behavior, but differ in their tail shape. Manatees have a rounded tail while dugongs have a fluked tail.
Throughout history, there have been tales of “mermaids” that were said to inhabit the oceans. Many people now believe that these stories may have been based on sightings of dugongs or manatees. In fact, the scientific name for dugongs, Dugong dugon, is believed to come from the Malay word “duyung,” which means mermaid. The ancient Greeks also believed in the existence of sea creatures that were half-woman, half-fish, and many depictions of mermaids throughout history bear a striking resemblance to dugongs. The mysterious and graceful nature of dugongs and manatees may have inspired these legends.
If you wish to see a dugong, they can be found in warm coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific region, including the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and western Pacific Ocean.
Dugongs in the Philippines
The dugong population in the Philippines has been declining rapidly since the 1970s. Historically, dugongs were found in all areas of the Philippines, but today, some populations are on the brink of local extinction. Sparse and scattered dugong populations are found near the southern and western Mindanao coast, Guimaras Strait and Antique, Aurora, Quezon and the Polillo Island, Tawi-Tawi and the Sulu Archipelago, with the largest population around Palawan Island.
Majority of the dugong population can be found in Calauit Island which is part of the Calamian Archipelago. It is near the northwestern coast of Busuanga Island which is part of the province of Palawan.
Other populations are much smaller, with some areas only having 10 or fewer individuals.
Despite being protected by Philippine laws, dugongs are still hunted opportunistically, particularly in remote coastal communities where alternative livelihood opportunities are limited.
In some parts of the Philippines, their meat, oil, bones, and teeth are believed to have medicinal properties and are used in traditional medicine. In some communities, dugong meat is considered a delicacy and is consumed on special occasions. There are also beliefs that certain parts of the dugong’s body, such as the bones and teeth, have mystical and protective powers and are used as amulets to ward off evil spirits.
This illegal hunting, along with habitat loss and degradation, poses a significant threat to the survival of dugongs in the Philippines. Conservation efforts, including community-based initiatives and law enforcement, are being implemented to address this issue and protect the remaining dugong populations in the country.
Scuba Diving with Dugongs
Preparing for a dive with dugongs involves several important steps to ensure the safety and conservation of these majestic creatures. Upon arrival at the dive site, the Bantay Dugong, who are part of the indigenous Tagbanua tribes of Calauit Island, provided a briefing on the dugong-watching guidelines.
The Bantay Dugong plays an essential role in monitoring the observance of the guidelines during each dugong-watching activity, and collects a small fee from tourists, which goes towards the conservation of the dugong species.
Only four divers and a guide are allowed in the water at any given time. At the surface, the dugong ranger looks for the dugong to help divers spot them. Each dive group is given 15 minutes of interaction, and divers are asked to stay 5 meters away from the dugong. If visibility is bad, divers may go closer up to 2 meters.
- Enter the water quietly.
- Observe silently and avoid making any loud noise.
- Do not touch or chase the dugong.
- If the dugong approaches you, do not panic. Move slowly away.
- Flash photography or video lights are not allowed to avoid disturbing the dugongs.
Following these guidelines will ensure that divers can safely and responsibly enjoy the beauty of these remarkable marine mammals.
The dugong watching area opens at 8AM and when we arrived at 8:30 there were already other dive boats in the area. This meant that we had to wait for them to finish before we could get in the water.
Aside from that, since there can only be 4 divers in the water at a given time, we spent a lot of time in the boat under the sun. So make sure to wear reef safe sunscreen and hydrate often if you’re doing a dive with the dugong!
Even if there was quite a queue for the dugong interaction, we didn’t mind waiting.
As with any wildlife, seeing them is not guaranteed, but the odds were on our favor. According to the rangers, dugong sightings have a success rate of 80% or higher. There were around 30 individuals in the Dugong Park in Caluit so the possibility was quite high.
To our delight, the rangers informed us that the friendliest dugong, Aban-Aban, had already been sighted. Upon learning this, you can immediately sense the mood shift from impatience to excitement.
After having to wait for more than an hour, the Bantay Dugong finally instructed us to make ready, at which point we slowly and quietly entered the water. Because Aban-Aban traveled so swiftly, we were forced to swim some distance at the surface.
The Bantay Dugong gave us the signal to descend, and all of us proceeded to swim in the direction of Aban-aban below the surface. We were lucky that the visibility was amazing and the sun shone brightly above us making it the perfect conditions for dugong watching.
We spotted him feeding on some sea grass, and when we approached, he didn’t seem to mind our presence in the least. He must have been accustomed to the attention by this point since he continued to eat as much as his heart desired.
When all of a sudden he started swimming towards the surface, with clouds of sand collecting around him, he left me at the bottom of the ocean marveling at his lovely mermaid-like figure.
After floating for a short while on the surface of the water, Aban-Aban dove back down to the grassy ocean floor in order to resume feeding. I swam as quickly as I could to catch up with him and continued to keep a safe distance from him. Seeing this enormous potato-shaped mermaid, gobble up all of the sea grass in its path was really hypnotic to watch.
While we were watching the dugong, time seemed to pass quite rapidly. The next thing I knew, the dugong ranger was indicating for us to finish the dive and go back to the surface. The atmosphere was filled with happiness as we made our way back to the dive boat.
My 15-minute dive was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had despite how short it was. Being in such close proximity to such a majestic animal is awe-inspiring, and it is difficult to remain unmoved by the experience of having such a close interaction with the animal.
Dive Centers for Dugong Watching in Palawan
I was able to dive with a dugong in Palawan through a liveaboard. You can read about my experience on MV Resolute Coron-Apo Reef- Puerto Galera liveaboard trip on this post.
Another option is to go diving with Dugong Dive Center at El Rio y Mar Resort in Coron, Busuanga, Palawan. They are the closest dive shop from Calauit.
If you are not a scuba diver, snorkelers and freedivers may also go dugong watching. Some tour operators organizes trips from Coron Island so you can interact with the dugongs in Calauit Island.
When is the best time to go diving with dugongs
You can dive with the dugongs in Calauit the whoe year-round. The dry season from November to May, is the most favorable time to go diving in with dugongs in the Philippines. The best time is from April to May, which is considered to be the summer months in the Philippines. During this time the water are normally calmer and the visibility is better during this time.