25 June, 2024

By Rachel Lovelock

Back in the 17th century, when the European spice traders were sailing through the waters of the archipelago now known as Indonesia, the sailors would hear voices – hypnotic voices looping over the becalmed waves, singing songs with seductive melodies. Sometimes the homesick sailors, three months out from port and living on hardtack, salt pork and unclean water, would catch glimpses of the singers, beautiful women with long flowing hair and fishtails. Upon hearing the hauntingly compelling singing, the sailors were enchanted by the promise of untold pleasures, tailored to their deepest desires, but the evil sirens’ songs would lure the ships close to dangerous rocks… 

It’s believed that the inspiration for the ancient seafaring legends of mermaids and sirens, were dugongs and manatees, aquatic creatures, whose faces might have been spied by the sailors when they rose to the water’s surface for a breath of air. 

Meet Mawar the Dugong

I’m a guest with SeaTrek Sailing Adventures, and today, we’re on our way to meet a real siren, a wild male dugong called Mawar. Dugongs and Manatees are members of an order of living sirenians − herbivorous marine mammals often referred to as sea cows because their diets consist almost entirely of seagrass. Mawar plays in a sheltered bay near Mali Airport on the remote Indonesian island of Alor. He’s not exactly tame but he’s certainly bold and he’s very, very friendly, seductive even. I wonder if he can sing.  

a dugong called mawar

Meet Pak One

As we head out into the bay in SeaTrek’s rubber dinghies, I learn that all dugongs can sing. They have poor eyesight, so instead of communicating visually, they sing to each other all the time, using chirps, whistles, barks and other sounds that echo through the water. Additionally, they communicate with physical touch. We’re joined, in a separate boat, by Mawar’s “guardian”, Pak One (pronounced Oneh). He’s there to keep an eye on us. Pak One used to be a gangster in Jakarta but in the mid-nineties, he gave up his wayward ways and returned to his home-island of Alor. Since then, Pak One has dedicated his life to protecting the local marine resources, including Mawar, who he first encountered when he was planting mangroves about 20 years ago. Dugongs can live for up to 70 years. 

Pak One, the man who be friend with Mawar the dugong in Alor.

Although Pak One is happy to allow visitors to meet Mawar, he will not allow the dugong to be exploited. He is not fed, he shows up of his own free will, and our group is under strict instructions not to touch him and not to jump into the water with him.  Upon hearing Pak One’s call, Mawar appears in seconds. He swims towards our dinghy at, I’m told, the speed of about 10 km per hour, and with his solid three-metre-long grey body, and porpoising movements, he has the appearance of a sea monster. Apparently he weighs about 300 kg. He hangs around for about 20 minutes, while displaying some very seductive actions towards the grey rubber sides of our Zodiac. I guess, with his poor eyesight, he has mistaken our dinghy for one of his own kind, in the same way, perhaps, that the ancient mariners mistook his kind for mermaids.