Swimming with the mermaids in Northern Palawan

After 20 years of waiting, I’m finally face-to-face with a dugong. It’s not like a whale that steals your breath because of sheer size, nor a shark that inspires more than just a hint of fear, no matter how small it is. Dugongs are huge but friendly, just like a mermaid Hodor.

Dodong signals us to keep at least 5 meters away from the obliviously grazing bull, crunching on clumps of Halophila ovalis which, unlike most types of seagrass, has small round leaves instead of flowing grass blades. Dugongs wolf down up to 40 kilograms a day, keeping hectares of seagrass pruned and productive. Danny starts shooting. 

Magical minutes pass, then we fin up to leave the meditative mammal be. Incredibly, Aban says goodbye, circling around us on the surface. I wave adios as he dives and disappears into the teal waters. As the animal ambles closer, I notice fighting scars on his hide. This is Aban, confirms Dodong with a nod. Owing to his good nature and natural curiosity, generations of divers have swam and photographed the scarred, 3-meter long dugong, who seems perennially surrounded by colorful golden trevally. I notice his skin is brown and not grey (dugongs only look grey in pictures because they’re usually photographed below 3 meters), his beady eyes and his serene, Siddhartha Gautama-level expression. 

Though dugongs are protected by law nationwide, they still get accidentally entangled in fishing gear and drown. The once-vast seagrass meadows they depend on for food are being destroyed by coastal reclamation and pollution. By protecting not just dugongs – but the seagrass meadows that support them – tomorrow’s Pinoys might too get a chance to come face to face with the real mermaids of the sea. (READ: Critically-endangered dugong found dead in Palawan)

We climb back on our boat, exchanging high-fives and fresh tales to share with other environment-lovers. The boat revs its engines and we’re off with big smiles etched on our faces. – Rappler.com

To book your dugong adventure, contact the Dugong Dive Center’s Dirk Fahrenbach at info@dugongdivecenter.com.

Gregg Yan is founder of the Best Alternatives Campaign. He wrote this feature in celebration of World Oceans Day, June 8.