The Dugongs of Bazaruto Mozambique

Rare, big and beautiful, the dugongs of Bazaruto Mozambique are gentle megafauna endemic to the warm Indian Ocean islands where their delicious seagrasses grow. This is the last viable dugong population off the East Coast of Africa, and we want to share their incredible story with you. The sea cow is so threatened and so valuable to conservation that the Bazaruto Archipelago Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA), was established in honour of these magical creatures, stretching an enormous 16,280 square km. Thankfully, this innovative and vital reserve also protects crucial habitat for endangered Humpback dolphins and whales and their related species. 

The IUCN Red List initially recorded the dugong as ‘vulnerable’, with a decreasing population, and in 2021 a herd of 57 individuals was spotted in Bazaruto. In 2022, the IUCN relisted the dugong as ‘critically endangered’ due to increasing human-induced threats and to increase international protection. The total population of dugongs or sea cows as they are sometimes called in Mozambique is approximately 250 to 350 animals – the last stronghold in East Africa’s Indian Ocean. If females die from human impacts, the entire population becomes even more vulnerable.

A dugong in the Bazaruto Archipelago of Mozambique
Dugongs are long-lived, slow breeding, marine herbivores, and one of the most endangered of marine mammals ~ photo credits to Mia Stawinski & African Parks

Where Can I See Dugongs in Mozambique?

Where there is seagrass there are dugongs. Seagrass meadows in Mozambique spread over an area of 439 square km in shallower waters. Scientists have highlighted the Bazaruto Archipelago as one of the most important sites for seagrass conservation along with Inhaca Island and Ponta do Ouro. So, most of these gentle sea cows can be seen around Carolina Island and beyond, gazing on the seabed. 

The dugong population endemic to the Bazaruto Islands is the last remaining group of these huge sea creatures in the entire 20 000 square km of Mozambique Marine Protected Areas. Research in the 1960s showed that there were some 300 dugongs left in the East African dugong Population, but aerial surveys in the 1990s revealed that these numbers had dwindled to only about 130 in Bazaruto Bay! 

A dugong diving down with a school of fish in the Mozambique waters
Did you know? Dugongs are closely related to Elephants. Photo credits ~ African Parks

Diving with Dugongs in Bazaruto 

Diving with the critically endangered Dugongs in the awe-inspiring Bazaruto Archipelago Marine National Park is a life-changing experience. Mozambique is one of the premium diving destinations in the world where dive sites remain uncrowded and pristine coral reefs are home to diverse marine fauna and flora. Aspirant dugong seekers can walk off the flat white beaches into the ocean from designer beach villas on Bazaruto Island or from lavish resort chalets on Benguerra Island.  It’s the best place to see the dugongs and a place where responsible tourism counts. 

Do it, take diving and boat trips from exceptional lodges in the Bazaruto Archipelago to learn something new about dugongs and their habitat. The local people hunted dugongs during the 1990s, selling and eating their meat in Mozambique. Thanks to their environmental protection populations are growing and getting more stable!

This is just one enormous threat facing these gracious sea cows now so scarce that to see one or a few is magical. It is a heartwarming experience to see these ocean giants floating in the Indian Ocean where tall palm trees line the dazzling white beaches and idyllic island resorts offer well-heeled tourists the perfect relaxing holiday venues.  

Daring divers can get up close and personal with Dugongs when they set off to explore the reefs of the Bazaruto Archipelago – more than 100 species of coral, hundreds of tropical fish species, dolphins, turtles, sharks, game fish and whales. Divers seek Dugongs out as they graze the seagrasses way below the surface of the ocean, creating special underwater photography opportunities. 

The Facts About Dugongs in Mozambique and How They Live

Dugongs hang about in shallower waters which keeps them safe from predators of the deep seas, but this brings them into contact with humans more often, their main threat. They swim slowly and are easy to see due to their extraordinary shape and size which makes them easy targets for hunters. While dugongs can live until the ripe old age of 70, they don’t breed very easily – females only give birth every 5 years to one calf at a time and each pregnancy lasts an entire year! So, one female can only have 12 calves in her lifetime, and she likes to dedicate years to raising each one.  

Let’s look at the facts about dugongs and how they live:

  • Their name: Dugongs are commonly known as the sea pig or sea camel and the name Dugong comes from the Malay term duyung which means Lady of the Sea. They move slowly and elegantly, like large ladies – and they swim beautifully thanks to their buoyant bodies and streamlined shapes. It is quite possible that sailors of yore mistook Dugongs for mermaids, and this is how legends about mermaids first started. They are also called sea cows thanks to the way they graze their seagrasses using their robust split upper lips.  
  • Their size: Dugong can grow up to measure 3 m and can weigh as much as 500 kg. They are enormous dumpy grey mammals, spending their days digging up sea grasses from the ocean floor. They use their flippers which look like paddles, but which also feature five fingers used for swimming and digging.
  • Their background: Dugongs are herbivores and belong to the group of marine animals in the order Sirenia. The dugong is one of four species of the order Sirenia, a group of marine mammals that are strictly herbivorous meaning they eat only plants. This rare animal is the only member of the Dugongidae family, related to manatees. They may look like the family of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), but scientists believe that their ancestors were land mammals and that they are closer relatives of elephants. Male dugongs do grow tusks when they mature. 
  • Their habitat: They like tropical ocean waters and come from 37 different countries in the world, ranging from East Africa (where only 300 are left) to the Red Sea (where about 2000 are left), then Australia (where some 80 000 still live)! They like shallow warm ocean waters where seagrasses grow thick and where they remain safe from large waves and storms. One dugong can eat up to 30 kg of seagrass a day, the same as about 60 lettuces.
  • Their physiology: They breathe with lungs so must surface for air often as they can hold their breath for about 11 minutes at a time and can dive to about 33 m to graze. Then they rise to breathe oxygen through their nostrils. While their eyesight is poor, dugongs have excellent smell and hearing and they communicate using unique squeals, yelps, shrills and other high-pitched sounds. 

Human Conflict with Dugongs in Bazaruto

The tranquil dugong is harmless to other creatures, a gentle herbivore minding its own business in warm tropical oceans. But people take advantage of this! Human conflict with dugongs in Bazaruto is an ongoing issue. How tragic that dugongs are still hunted for their meat despite their protected status in most regions. They also get caught in fishing gill nets and drown. They are sensitive to the loud sounds underwater from boats, harbours, and coastal development. Increasing pollution going into the ocean, sewage overflows and sedimentation caused by river erosion are affecting their seagrass habitats. They tend to collide with fishing boats and have to swim far to find food.  

In Mozambique, local people have always been dependent on ocean resources for their survival, fishing and hunting through the ages. Today, more than two-thirds of the estimated 20 million people living in Mozambique inhabit the coastal regions. They rely on the coastal zone and its natural resources while the country needs these natural resources to feed the tourism, fisheries and export industries.  So, there is plenty of strain on the seagrasses, the reefs, the marine wildlife and the quality of the ocean waters. 

Bazaruto Archipelago Marine National Park

Most visitors to Mozambique know that the Bazaruto islands is the playground for diving, water sports, beautiful sunny weather, boat cruises and yachting safaris, fishing trips, island picnics and spa treatments. Island revellers stay in luxury villas on white sandy beaches and laze around swimming pools all day, tasting fresh lobster and line fish while sipping top imported wines.  

Did you know that the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park is a marine reserve protecting a unique ecological zone? The island chain is not only an ocean habitat but is a wetlands and forest system too where about 141 bird species, 18 reptile species, 21 mammal species, five dolphin species and migrating whales live. This is also the home of the last viable population of dugongs on the African East Coast. 

The aerial view of the islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago
The idyllic island chain of the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique are known for pristine beaches and great diving in the crystal clear Indian Ocean. Photo credits ~ African Parks

It is therefore fortunate and vital that the Indian Ocean dugong population is protected within two marine protected areas (MPAs) – the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park and the Vilanculos Wildlife Sanctuary. The IUCN also announced that a new marine reserve would stretch from the islands to Inhambane Bay and cover more than 16 000 square km. People still live within this island reserve, dependent on ocean and land natural resources, making ecotourism a viable industry for all. Iconic megafauna dwell in the archipelago including dugongs, whales, turtles, dolphins, whale sharks, manta rays, marlin, sailfish and sharks. 

The Bazaruto islands are a magnet for and the marine national park has been in place since 1971. The building of strong relationships between community members, conservation bodies, lodge owners, tourism operators and diving schools is a way to strengthen the protection of all species and their vital habitats.  This includes skills development, employment and offering alternatives for income creation. 

The Conservation Work of African Parks

One of the best conservation decisions ever made for the Bazaruto Archipelago was when the Mozambican National Administration of Conservation Areas (ANAC) invited African Parks to manage the region in 2017. Their highly respected reputation in Africa is positively benefiting several Mozambique national parks and already the dugong is getting the attention it deserves. 

African Parks initiated regular patrolling to stop illegal ocean activities such as poaching and to improve management capability within the park where rangers work with police and ocean authorities. Such teamwork has already halted dugong deaths caused by fishing nets and in just 5 years, the people are realising how important biodiversity preservation is to their own lives! 

A Dugong diving under the water in the Bazaruto
A Dugongs diet only consists of seagrass which is very rare, in fact so rare that it is the only completely marine mammal to have a diet like this. Credits to Mia Stawinski / African Parks

Tourism is also strictly regulated to relieve pressures on the environment and its inhabitant wildlife – boating, diving, water sports and fishing activities have to be controlled for the sake of the conservation of natural resources. African Parks works with all to look after Mozambique’s incredible natural areas, the only way to achieve a win-win situation. Get in touch with us on how to book a holiday to see the dugongs of Bazaruto. It will be a very special experience.

This is the incredible story of the dugongs of Bazaruto. This is the story about the last viable dugong population off the East coast of Africa. Dive with dugongs in Bazaruto. Come and see the critically endangered sea cow before it is too late – book a luxury island holiday in the Bazaruto Archipelago and contribute to the conservation of dugongs at the same time.