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AN UNFORGETTABLE ENCOUNTER AT BUNDY

By Nigel Marsh

 

The October long weekend was the perfect excuse to pack the dive gear and jump in the car for a few days of diving at Bundaberg. And after three days of lovely shore diving I headed home with the biggest smile on my face as I had unexpectedly encountered an animal on the top of my bucket list – a dugong.

 

Saturday started with two wonderful shore dives at Barolin Rocks and Hoffman Rocks, as Bundaberg has a rocky coastline that allows corals to flourish and offers the best shore diving the Queensland. With a macro lens on my camera I found a range of great subjects; sea hares, reef fish, flat worms, sea stars, crabs, shrimps, olive sea snakes and a great range of nudibranchs. The conditions were almost perfect – flat seas, light winds an sunshine, but the visibility was a little patchy, 3m to 10m, stirred up by mid-week strong winds that had left a lot of particles in the water. But for macro work this wasn’t an issue.

 

Late on the Saturday afternoon I contacted Julian Negri from Aqua Scuba, the local dive shop, to see if the planned boat dive was still on for the Sunday. Julian informed me that they had cancelled the dive due to lack of numbers. I was a little disappointed by the news until Julian told me about the dive he had just had at Barolin Rocks with a group of students.

 

“The students were doing their skills on the sand when a dugong swam around them, and it even did a backflip!” said Julian. I almost did a backflip myself, I couldn’t believe it. Julian then added “it’s been hanging around Barolin Rocks for the last week or so”.

 

I had dived Barolin Rocks only that morning, but searching for macro critters I had my head down most of the dive, so wondered if the dugong had swam around me without me realising it. Damn!

 

The cancelled boat dive quickly forgotten, I was determined to see this dugong, a very rare animal that I had always wanted to encounter underwater.

 

Sunday morning I was down at Barolin Rocks with a wide angle lens on my camera. I jumped in the water at 7am, and with a maximum of depth of only 8am I knew I had plenty of bottom time to find the elusive mammal.

 

I quickly swam to the reef edge to find the sandy bottom quite stirred up, only 3m visibility, it was like a sand storm and I knew it would be hopeless for underwater photography, but I would have been happy to just see the dugong. However after five minutes of fruitless searching over the sand I decided to head back onto the reef, where it was clearer, about 6m visibility, and hoped the dugong would find me.

 

I soon found plenty of great macro subjects, but very little to photography with a wide angle lens in such poor conditions. After fifteen minutes I was certain that there was no way I was going to see this dugong and that I should have just stuck to macro.

 

Just as I was thinking that I felt a presence on my right, I turned to find a very cute face with thick lips and a tiny eye looking at me – IT WAS THE DUGONG!

 

I couldn’t believe it; the dugong had snuck up beside me and was now staring at me from only a metre away. I slowly raised my camera and quickly snapped off a few photos of the 2.5m long mammal. I was so overwhelmed that I almost had tears in my eyes as I couldn’t believe it - I was swimming with a dugong, the mythical mermaid.

 

After swimming side by side for thirty seconds, sizing each other up, a turtle suddenly shot off the bottom that disturbed the dugong, causing it to kick its wide tail, turn and glide away.

 

I followed, hoping that it would come back for another visit, but quickly lost sight of it in the gloomy visibility. But just when I thought the encounter was over the dugong reappeared for one last look at me, cruising by about 3m away, then with a flick of its tail it was gone.

 

I was lucky my regulator didn’t drop out of my mouth with the wide smile that was beaming on my face. What a delightful encounter, one of the best in thirty years of scuba diving, I felt very blessed to have had such a close encounter with one of the rarest mammals on the planet.

 

I continued to explore the reef for another forty minutes, constantly checking around me, but the dugong didn’t return, its curiosity satisfied it may have headed back to its normal habitat in Hervey Bay, or was just waiting around to surprise the next lucky diver.

 

I did two more dives at Barolin Rocks hoping to see the dugong again, but it never reappeared. It had given me my brief encounter and it wasn’t going to give me anymore.

 

Later talking to Julian he told me that dugong encounters are rare off Bundaberg, but they do see them every now and then, as Bundaberg is located at the top end of Hervey Bay, where the dugongs feed, so they are always in the area. I only hope this dugong hangs around Barolin Rocks, as it adds another draw card to what is already a great diving destination.

 

 

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