How intelligent are Dugong

about dugongs, who voluntarily seek contact with humans.
Studies suggest that they may be more intelligent than previously thought.

1. Sinai

the beginning of a beautiful friendship
Dugongphoto M any years ago we dived off the Sinai coast. Suddenly he was there, behind us, in front, besides us. Almost 3 meters long, plump. The face appeared friendly, smiling, like that of a dolphin. He swam away, obviously inviting us to follow. He was fast, disappeared into the blue and returned from another direction. He stayed with us until we ran out of air and followed us to the shallow.

It was our first dugong, we only knew them from books. And it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

What did we observe in detail?

  • Dugongs gain forward motion with their Dugongphototail fin. Each powerful downward beat provides a forward thrust. This course of motion appears wave-like, flowing and graceful, very powerful, and while swimming the animal appears astonishingly streamlined. It resembles a large dog frolicking over a meadow.

    For a change of direction he turns his head and shoulders into the desired direction and gains additional steering with his forearms.

    This course of motion probably developed from the gallop of his four-legged ancestors.

  • We never saw him surface for breathing. Probably we dived too close to the shore and he rather swam out into the blue before surfacing?
  • He was searching contact with us. Why and what to?Dugongphoto
    • Was he lonely?
    • Was it sexual drive?
    • Or did he just recognise the mammalian relationship?
    • Were we just a welcome, interesting pastime?
    • Does he make contact with dolphins in the same way?

This kind of deliberate encounters are only reported from areas, where dugongs are scarce.

Dugongphoto From Shark Bay, where 10.000 dugong live, Paul Anderson describes them as easily scared." When not frightened, they come near a boat or swimmer to investigate, and disappear when their curiosity is satisfied."

2. El Qseir/Marsa Aöam

a daily habit
El Qseir Dugong Torfa Tany, a bay south of the Egyptian village El Qseir. As soon as divers jump from their boats into the sea , a dugong turns up out of the blue, thoroughly inspects them from all sides and pushes off when the photographers bother him too much. Reportedly there are two gregarious dugong in this bay. Another, often photographed dugong meets divers frequently in the bay of Marsa Abu Dabbab, north of Marsa Alam.

That reminds us of Paul Anderson's remarks, but these individuals have made these meetings an almost daily habit.

3. Vanuatu

three peculiar dugongs
V anuatu, formerly the New Hebrides, little developed state of 82 islands, is the easternmost corner of the dugong distribution. Three dugongs there have become quite famous.


I n Resolution Bay of Tanna dugongs are socializing with humans since 1970. From 1988 a male is permanently residing here. It is very The Dugong of Tanna died in December 2002. tame and responds when local children call it by slapping the surface of the water. Underwater photographer Ben Cropp spent a week on Tanna with this dugong. He witnessed him bringing a turtle back to the village, where turtles are consumed.

The animal grabs swimmers with its powerful pectoral fins. lt also loved to bite diver's flippers and air hoses, or grab their heads with its pectoral fins.

In recent years the dugong has become aggressive toward tourists and villagers alike. Divers and tourists are partly responsible, as the animal is harassed. In recent months it has displayed unusual behavior by tossing turtles into the air.


O n the island of Epi, another male dugong has formed a relationship with the locals. This animal was first befriended by two Canadian women in the early 1980s, who swam with and stroked the dugong, which seemed to seek out human contact. The villagers in the area are irked by the dugong's behavior. When they are spear fishing, it will act as a barrier between the fish and the fisherman. It also displays a type of mimicry. If a villager dives toward the sand below, the dugong will follow; if the head is shaken, the animal will mimic this behavior. Dolphins and porpoises are known to display this type of behavior, especially when a reward system is in place; however, food is not offered to this dugong.

Unlike the dugong at Tanna, the one at Epi displays friendliness and not aggression. However, at this stage it has not been subjected to much harassment. It will not allow villagers near its tail.

T he other known tame solitary dugong lives on the small but inhabited island called Loh. It interacts with the children. The animal is summoned using a paddle, as with the dugong on Tanna. It allows children to mount its back and is gentle.

4. Conclusion

T hese are anecdotal reports which could lead to the assumption that the animal owns a more complex intelligence than the present state of the science, and its brain size would suggest (0.1 % of body weight, human 2.1%, dolphin 0.9%). It may also be relevant, that individuals described here, (if determined at all) are solitary males.

Paul Anderson writes: "Recent studies of the brains of manatees suggest that they, and dugongs (by extrapolation), may be more intelligent than previously thought."

And Dr. Roger Reep: "Instead of saying manatees have small brains, you can look at them as having very large bodies ... That does not mean a manatee leads a dull-witted life, just a relatively uncomplicated one."

See also:

5. Sources

  • Anderson, P. 1991-92. 'Sea Pigs of Shark Bay'.
    CALM Landscope, 7 (2): 24-27.
  • Sirenews 26 and 30
  • 'Dugong or not' - Scuba World May 1993
  • 'Zarte Bande' - Tauchen Sept. 95
  • Scuba Diver Dec. 96
  • The stamps are from a set of 4, issued 1988 by Vanuatu and the WWF.
  • El Qseir Photo: Matthias Janneck.

Photos Gisela Rothauscher