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Thailand's tourist drought leaves space for shy sea mammal

Human intrusion and marine pollution have made dugong sightings in southern Thailand rare in recent years.
Six dugongs swimming together Wednesday were part of a larger group of dugongs cruising slowly in shallow waters off southern Thailand.Thailand Department of National Parks via AP

BANGKOK — It’s rare to see a threatened species of sea mammal in shallow waters in southern Thailand but thanks to travel restrictions that have stripped popular destinations of crowds of tourists, a large group of dugongs has made their presence known.

Drone video footage released by the Department of National Parks shows a 30-strong herd of dugongs on Wednesday off Libong island in Trang province. They were feeding on sea grass and occasionally surfaced to breathe.

Naturalists report other marine animals are also taking advantage of the tourism slump that is leaving coastal regions tranquil and undisturbed.

Human intrusion and marine pollution have made dugong sightings in southern Thailand rare in recent years.

“It’s quite unusual,” marine scientist Thon Thamrongnawasawat told The Associated Press on Thursday when asked about the dugongs. “This species of mammal is very sensitive to speed boats and people. When they are gone, they feel free to gather in a large group and come close to shore.”

Dugongs – closely related to the manatee or sea cow – are officially classified as vulnerable. They can grow up to 3.4 meters (11 feet) in length. Thailand’s population is put at around 250. Last year a record number of dead dugongs were found in Thai waters.

Their fate captured attention last June after images circulated of Thai veterinarians cuddling an ailing baby dugong and hand-feeding her with milk and sea grass.

Despite the care, she died two months later. An autopsy found a large amount of plastic waste in her intestines that had caused gastritis and blood infection.

Thon said there were also reports this week of large schools of sharks coming unusually close to shore in several places in southern Thailand, and a sighting of a pod of false killer whales.

Video from park rangers on Phi Phi island shows 70-100 blacktip sharks in the shallow waters of the Maya Bay, made famous in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach.” The bay was closed to tourists in June 2018 for ecological recovery, and the island’s entire national park has been shut since March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Park rangers also counted 10-15 false killer whales, another protected species, near the popular tourist island of Koh Lanta, the first time they have been seen in that area.