Dugongs: Sirens of the Sea
The Dugong (Dugong dugon) is the smallest member of the order of Sirenia. It derives its name from the Malay word 'duyung', which means 'mermaid' or 'lady of the sea'.
Ancient mariners returning from long sea voyages brought back with them fascinating stories about observing mermaids frolicking in the seas. Mariners enlightened eager audiences with tales of the beautiful maidens who had the head and body of a woman and tail of a fish.
Dugongs’ scientific order name ‘Sirenia’ aptly reflects the romanticism of ancient Greek mythology. Sirens were the beautiful mythical maidens in the times of the ancient Greeks. The sirens would sing their seductive songs, luring sailors too close to the rocks on which they rested and, in this way, many ships and their crews met a watery grave. In Homer's epic story Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew lashed themselves to the mast of their ship to avoid ruin.
Up close, however, dugongs are quite different in appearance from the seductive mermaids of lore as described by sea-weary mariners. They are in fact large bulbous animals with small eyes, and have paddle like flippers and a bristle-covered snout. Female dugongs, however, do have pectoral mammary glands reminiscent of human breasts. These features may have caused sailors to liken them to mermaids, or sirens of the sea. Though their appearance differs from mermaids, dugongs are still considered to be graceful and gentle beauties of the sea.
Dugongs are now listed as ‘vulnerable’ in Queensland, but once they were plentiful, especially in Moreton Bay.
In 1843, James Backhouse wrote a narrative of a visit to the Australian Colonies. In this narrative he wrote that Aborigines valued the flesh of Dugongs and caught them
using nets which were made from bark. Dugongs were also caught by non-indigenous people and butchered for their meat, fats and oil. The fat from dugongs was sold to soap makers while its oil was regarded as a miraculous ‘cure-all’ for a multitude of ailments. Dr. William Hobbs became a protagonist of the medicinal use of dugong oil and sent samples of his oils to the Paris Exhibition in 1855.
Dugong soap was also sent to an Exhibition, this time in London in 1862 where it won a medal and gained much attention from the general public. Dugong by-products became a commodity that was worth its weight in gold. In the late 1800s dugong oil was claimed to be the wonder cure for baldness.