Thursday, September 19, 2013

Doggone dugongs

Weighing anchor from Epi at 10:00, we had a pleasant sail towards Malakula Island (Vanuatu) arriving 6 hours later (S16°28.107' E167°48.736') through a coral pass and reefs.

The lagoon inside the pass is home to several dugongs, a close relative of manatees. But dugongs are found only in marine environments and not rivers or estuaries as manatees can be, making dugongs the only plant eating mammal to be found only at sea. A large shy aquatic mammal, up to 3.6 metres (12 feet long), their diet consists of only sea grass and rhizomes. They dig up the sea bed with their flattened muzzles, and with only small peg-like teeth, chew their food.

They are known to travel alone and also in groups of several hundred. We spotted a couple of these mellow creatures outside the reef coming up for a gulp of air.

Once anchored in the lagoon, we launched the dinghy and donned swim stuff and quietly rowed towards where we saw them surfacing. We didn't use the outboard to avoid spooking them. Once we got close, we slipped into the water to try to get close. However the water was turbid so we were never able to see them below. We kept sighting along the surface, but each time we saw them surface it was always too far away to get near enough quick enough before they had moved on again.

Disappointed, we returned to Sea Turtle with just enough time to depart and get through the pass before evening dusk, making for our next destination. Anchor up, we started to motor out when we heard a sickening thump thump and Sea Turtle came to a full and secure halt on the rough shallows! With me at the helm, I had taken my eyes off the depth meter for a second and we were suddenly stuck on coral.

This was the worst possible grounding. It was soon to get dark but more distressful was it was high tide and a full moon (highest tide time) meaning that if we couldn't get off immediately, we would be stuck there for a  month or so until the next extreme high tide again, a full lunar cycle away.

Jordan quickly put on a mask and dove to analyze the bottom. Next he quickly lowered the dinghy and motor back into the water and attached a rope from the dinghy to Sea Turtle's bow sprit. I turned the wheel to hard port with Sea Turtle at full power while Jordan powered with all the might of the dinghy's 9.5 HP motor to try to twist her and pull her off towards deeper water. Slowly her bow swung, and a moment later, she slid forward towards safety.

Just about then, and to heighten the pandemonium, while Jordan looked back he momentarily let his steering wander. That produced a leverage of the motor against the pull of the rope and the dinghy tipped on its side throwing Jordan in the water. The motor, at full throttle now and turned sideways, tried to flip the dinghy again and again while Jordan held fast to the side. He was afraid of getting his feet in the prop as each time the dinghy tipped, the motor would lose its bite and come back down for another grip.

Jordan had the presence of mind to reach up at one point and grab the kill cord at the same time shouting at me to pull back on Sea Turtle's power as I was now coming up on him and the rope in the water. Whewww!!!! His quick thinking and maneuvering was successful!!!

As things slowed down in a safe middle channel, we got our breaths, raised the dinghy once more again to Sea Turtle's deck, then quickly made our way through the formidable pass.

All this to swim with dugongs, which we never accomplished...

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