LOOKING FOR THE DUGONG
By Camille Rustici
Located two hours flight from Sydney and 17,000 km away from Paris, the French territory New Caledonia is the third largest archipelago in the Pacific. Wrapped with a 1,600 km long coral reef, on the Coral Sea, it has the biggest lagoon of the world. Two-thirds of this extraordinary natural treasure is inscribed on the UNECSO World Heritage list since 2008. Still wild and unspoiled, New Caledonia has preserved its tropical ecosystem, most of which is endemic.
Lost in the middle of the Coral Sea, two hours flight from Sydney and 17,000 km away from Paris, New Caledonia is a place full of legends and stories. Wrapped with a 1,600 km long coral reef, the little French archipelago has the biggest lagoon of the world. And this is from the lagoon that all the legends come from.
One of these stories led me to Thio Mission, a little village on the Eastern coast of the Great Land, also known as the ‘Forgotten Coast’. Forgotten, because the place is isolated and still wild. With no road, sailing along the coast is the only alternative.
I was told, years ago, about a friendly and lonely wild dugong who used to take up residence in these little frequented turquoise waters. According to the legend, he would show up in front of the rare swimmers who ventured to this isolated place, looking for caresses.
Jean-Baptiste met the dugong several times. For this marine biology researcher, swimming on a dugong’s back was one of the greatest experiences of his life. ‘‘It was fantastic. He was not afraid of people. Actually, he was looking for people. He wanted the swimmers to play with him and to caress him. And he was always asking for more.’’
With my snorkelling equipment on, in the middle of fluorescent corals and colourful fish, I started waiting for the dugong, hoping I would also have the chance to closely see this big animal in its natural environment. I waited and waited, imagining what would be my first reaction when seeing him coming towards me. I dreaded this first contact.
I waited but the dugong never came. A local who was walking nearby to catch some clams for lunch told me nobody around had seen the dugong in a while. ‘‘He must have found a girlfriend,’’ he told me smiling.
Or maybe worse. The dugong is one of the most endangered species in the world. In New Caledonia, which is the third world tank, less that a thousand people remain, mostly on the West Coast. They are the victims of poaching and loss of seagrass.
The disappearance of the dugong triggered a reaction from Caledonian environmental associations and organisations. In the Ouano region, near the capital Nouméa, two dugong have been fitted with satellite tags. Those tags will track their daily movements and help the marine biologists improve the conservation of this endangered species.
To see more of Camilles journey to New Caledonia see our July 2013 issue of 72&Rising Magazine.