Will I ever meet a dugong?

A dream that has never become reality

We all have dreams. They drive us forward every day. When we realize a dream, it means that we succeeded in fighting through adversity. Dreams often take a long time to become reality. Everybody has a suitcase full of dreams that have never come to fruition. One thing is certain. If we respect ourselves and give essential meaning to our lives, we will find ways to make the impossible possible in order to realize our dreams. But sometimes, despite our tenacity and desire to break down all barriers, our dreams are not fulfilled. Then, we should start again. We cannot give up. This is one of the games of life.

We all have our own dreams. How difficult it is to realize them depends on what they are. For some people, their dream is going to the moon or seeing our little blue planet from space. For others, it is being able to afford the thrill of going over 250 miles per hour. My dreams are much simpler. I like to walk on the earth and feel the soil under my feet. My dreams are always possible. I have a rule that I never break: Every year, I plan to bring three of my dreams to fruition. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but, because most of my dreams are related to long trips overseas, three is plenty for one year!

A dream cannot be explained. There is only one thing to do with it: fulfill it. In recent years I have done everything possible to realize one dream of mine, which is to see and photograph a dugong. So far, I have not been able to achieve it. A dugong is a marine mammal, part of the order Sirenia, that lives on the coasts of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Ocean. It looks like a manatee. Strange as it may seem, all my attempts to find and photograph this creature have failed. What bothers me most is that virtually all the divers I meet have seen a dugong. Even more annoying, all the underwater photographers I meet have already photographed one. Nobody can understand my dream because apparently photographing a dugong is “common”! But, there it is. For me, a dugong is like the Holy Grail. I've heard of them, I have seen photos, but it is apparently impossible for me to actually see one.

Dugongs are solitary animals. The places where they live are well known. One of them is Marsa Abbu Dabbab on the banks of the Red Sea in Egypt. “Marsa,” in Egyptian, means a large protected bay cut into coral. The sandy bottom of Marsa Abbu Dabbab is covered with grasses and seaweeds. These are a delicacy for dugongs, which spend a lot of time grazing in the bay.

2009 was first year in which I tried to realize this dream. I decided to spend a week between underwater workshops scuba diving in Marsa Alam. I thought it would be a good time. During my stay in Marsa Shagra I made 10 dives in the bay. There are not many subjects to photograph except large turtles with huge remoras attached to their shells. I spent hours swimming in nine feet of water in search of the elusive dugong. Because I am stubborn, I kept trying to get the photo I wanted until the very last day, but all in vain.

In 2011, I had the opportunity to set up two photography workshops in Shagra and Marsa Nakari. As the two villages are located near the marsa mentioned above, I asked the students if they wanted to make a couple of dives there and try to find the dugong. Again, all our attempts were futile. The students had a great time photographing the huge turtles, but I was disappointed. The dugong had been seen just a few days earlier.

One of the strangest experiences I have had happened in October 2011. I had organized a two-week cruise in the Red Sea with a group of other photographers. The theme of the trip was, "The best dives in the Red Sea from north to south." We dove to all the most beautiful sites in the Red Sea, from Ras Mohammed in the North to Zabargad in the South. Of course, this cruise had to make a stop at a place where we might see a dugong. At the end of the first week, we stopped in Port Ghaleb to refuel. Right next to the artificial harbor, there is a marsa where it would be possible for us to encounter the Holy Grail: Marsa Mubarak, named after the deposed president.

We decided on a strategy to try to locate the dugong, if there was one around. After an hour of scuba diving, nobody had seen one. We were very upset when we discovered that a group of 12 divers from a nearby boat had spent 10 minutes with the dugong. One of the divers had even taken a video. It was truly incredible, but back luck was still pursuing me. It was there, right next to us. We just went the wrong way. “Too bad,” I thought. “But I still have a chance — we will come back to Port Ghaleb at the end of the cruise.” All week, I thought about that dive. Every day, I thought that it would be that time. I felt it. I was certain that a dugong was waiting for me. The last dive of the last day arrived. I was ready. This time I would not make the same mistake. The week before, I had explored the bottom of the marsa. I knew where the grass was highest. That was where I had the best chance of finally meeting “it”.

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That time, we had not set up a plan beforehand. Every diver would be doing his own thing. I dove alone so that I could make sure not to disturb the dugong. I had spent seven days preparing myself for this. This time, it would finally be there.

I spent my entire dive swimming in nine feet of water. Once again my search was fruitless. I went back to the boat, annoyed. It was really not my day. I had just finished taking off my wetsuit when I heard the other divers coming back to the boat. The first question they asked was, “So, have you seen one?” I told them that I hadn’t. They didn’t believe me, because they had seen it. I smiled. It had to be a joke. It wasn’t, though. Philip had taken pictures. I checked. Yes, he had two pictures of the dugong. It was completely unbelievable. At the last minute, on the last dive of our trip, he had photographed the dugong. I was stupefied. It was impossible. Therefore it had to be true.

It was too bad, but I had to be fair. Philip had had incredible bad luck on the first dive of the trip — he had flooded his housing. We had found a way for him to stay. He finished in style by photographing the myth, the Grail, the thing ... I do not even dare to say its name. I was very happy for him. At least I know that it is there. I will not lose hope. I'll be there next time. My turn will come. I am sure that my persistence will eventually pay off. I had never been so close. I was just a little bit unlucky.

I have begun to think that our dreams are made difficult to achieve so that we will move forward and be forced to push our limits. It often takes a lot of perseverance and fighting spirit to achieve our dreams. But is it really so important to fulfill them? I wonder. Dreams are like journeys — “it is the road that counts, not the destination”.

The two photos just below this were taken by Philippe Soubirous. The two after that are mine. They show a turtle grazing in the bay. Since I couldn’t find the dugong, I photographed what I had.

The dugong of the red Sea.
The dugong of the red Sea.
The dugong of the red Sea.
The dugong of the red Sea.
Green turtle in the Red Sea.
Green turtle in the Red Sea.

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