Sea Cows: Know the Basics

Introduction & Physical Appearance

Can you guess what animal is shown above? Well, many people have heard of its nickname, the Sea Cow, which is derived from its shape, size, and behavior. Dugongs are also sometimes called 'sea cows' because they graze on seagrasses.Its scientific name, the Dugong dugon (or the Dugong), is a cousin to the infamous manatees. They both share a rounded appearance with a dolphin-like tail. Unlike their counter-part, the Sea Cow is strictly a marine mammal. Dugong also have poor eyesight but extreme hearing. They find and grasp seagrass with the aid of coarse, sensitive bristles that cover the upper lip of their large and fleshy snout. These peaceful aquatic mammals swim calmly in shallow coastal waters in the East oceans. Living up to 70 years old these herbivores can weigh anywhere from 510-1100 pounds.

Eight to ten feet tall, can be found in warm coastal waters from East Africa to Australia, (including the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Pacific). Like Whales, Dugongs are related to Elephants genetically, but share little appearance and behavioral attributes. Unlike many aquatic animals, the Sea Cow is awake during all times, day and night. They can stay underwater for a whole six minutes before resurfacing: sometimes breathing by “standing” on their tail with their heads above water. Dugongs normally roam solo or in pairs, but occasionally, they are sometimes seen gathered in large herds of a hundred animals.

Reproduction and Conservation

Small tusks can be seen in adult males and some old females. During the mating season, male dugongs use their tusks to fight each other. Normally, female Dugongs have one calf after a yearlong pregnancy, and the mother would help her young child reach the surface and take its first breathes. A young dugong would remains close to its mother for about 18 months, sometimes catching a ride on her broad back. These languid animals make an easy target for coastal hunters, and they were long sought for their meat, oil, skin, bones, and teeth.

The Sea Cow's slow breeding rate and long life span mean that dugongs are particularly susceptible to factors that threaten their survival.

Dugongs are now legally protected throughout their range, but their populations are still in a tenuous state. On a brighter note, some believe that Dugongs were the inspiration for ancient seafaring tales of mermaids and sirens!


Dugongs are threatened by sea grass habitat loss and degradation because of coastal development & industrial activities that cause water pollution. If there is not enough sea grass to eat, then the dugong does not breed normally. This makes the conservation of their shallow water marine habitat very important. Dugongs are slow-moving and have little protection against predators. Being large animals, however, only large sharks, saltwater crocodiles and killer whales are a danger to them. Young dugongs hide behind their mothers when in danger. They also often become victims of bycatch, the accidental entanglement in fishing nets.

Conversation: On a Worldwide Scale

As of September 2020, Dugongs have a vulnerable extinction risk: facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild.

Legislative Protection: Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

In Australia, Dugong are protected under various pieces of legislation. such as the Australian Government's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 (EPBC Act), which Sea Cows as marine and migratory species.

While Dugong are threatened on a worldwide scale, Australia has a large proportion of the remaining population. This makes Australia the largest, and globally most important, refuge for them.

The sensitive ecological status of these animals globally highlights the need for effective management strategies to protect and conserve the Australian population.

There are concerns about the Dugong population within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. There are a number of human related threats to Dugong including boatstrike, incidental capture in fishing nets and marine debris, and habitat degradation due to coastal development and declining water quality. A greater number of Dugong occur along the remote coast (northern third of the Great Barrier Reef north of Cooktown), and populations appear stable in that area.

How can we help?

Below, there are some organizations/programs promoting the safety of Sea Cows:

World Wild Life (Take Action)

World Wild Life (Adopt a Dugong)

Here are some ways to maintain the Dugong's remaining population (Sourced from

Protect habitat: Avoid damaging seagrass when don't drag boats over seagrass meadows. Take action to prevent pollutants, nutrients and herbicides from agriculture and other land-based activities flowing into creeks and rivers.

Mesh nets: Prohibitions and restrictions on the use of nets by commercial fishers in dugong protection areas are available in the Fisheries Regulations 1995.

Boating: Look out for dugongs, particularly if you know the area is shallow or contains seagrass. Dugongs are hard to see when they come to the surface to breath. All you often see is a small part of the head, back or tail breaking the water's surface. If you see a dugong reduce your speed.

Reporting: Immediately report any injured or dead dugongs, turtles or dolphins by phone on 1300 Animal (1300 264 625).

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