The Cow Fish
The wildlife of remote islands is rarely spectacular. Except for sleepy lizards, and the great fruit bats that sweep the night sky, few creatures have reached Vanuatu, a Pacific island chain separated from north-eastern Australia by a thousand miles of ocean. Yet Lamen Bay, in the midst of the archipelago, is home to one remarkable old animal: the dugong.
From the moment we touched down on the grassy airfield that juts out into the northern tip of the bay, we scanned the water in the hope of catching a glimpse of the creature. For three days it eluded us. Tropical rainstorms lashed the island, and onshore breezes stirred up a silty murk that clouded the sea and obscured its depths from view.
On the fourth morning the weather cleared. We put on our snorkels and fins, and set out into the glittering bay, in search of its famous resident. For an hour or so, the view through our goggles revealed nothing but sand, seaweed and the occasional fish. We began to realise that we could spend all day criss-crossing the mile-long crescent of water, and never find the creature. Fortunately, it was an inquisitive animal. It found us.
I will never forget the moment that I turned to the side and saw the dugong's enormous, blunt head, cruising directly towards us like a fat brown submarine. Oblivious to our excitement, it swam past and settled on the shimmering seabed just a few metres away. There it rested for a moment, as if waiting for us to follow.
Together with its Atlantic relative, the manatee, the dugong belongs to a unique group of marine mammals: the sirenians, named after the mythical half-human sirens - mermaids - who lured Greek sailors to their doom. The dugong does resemble a mermaid, not because it is a creature of beauty, but because its graceful, fish-like tail is so preposterously mismatched with its absurd-looking head. The local pidgin name, "cow fish", sums it up perfectly. The animal was ludicrous, yet mesmerising.
At first it kept at a tantalising distance, but as minutes passed, it began to swim closer. In length, the dugong was only slightly larger than I was, with my arms and legs outstretched. However, its stout body seemed immense. At one point the great creature swam straight up behind me, and for the first time I became uneasy at being the object of its attention. The beast probably weighed a quarter of a ton, and though the dugong is normally a gentle herbivore, its flabby snout concealed powerful tusks. I moved firmly out of the way; the dugong followed. We circled one another a couple of times - two large mammals playing an awkward underwater game of cat and mouse. To my relief, the creature soon lost interest, and I realised that it was not being aggressive: it was simply keen to investigate the lurid plastic fins that I wore on my feet.
After a while, the dugong returned. It came closer, and allowed us to stroke its mottled back. It waved its flippers gently, and we stared into its eyes. The siren stared back. Like the mariners of ancient legend, we were transfixed. We forgot the island, and the groups of people going about their daily business on the shore. We were alone with the great animal, floating in the endless void of the ocean.
Eventually the spell was broken. The dugong tired of us and swam away, its triangular tail fading into the soundless blue. We were alone once more, treading water in the sunlit bay. Dizzy with the euphoria of the encounter, we made our way ashore. Some friendly villagers noticed our smiles as we staggered up the beach.
"You-two-fellow look dugong?" they asked.
We nodded in silent elation.