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Things you only know if you’re a dugong keeper

Olivia Gee
Written by
Olivia Gee

… according to Samantha Hillman, 29, senior dugong keeper at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium

Dugongs aren’t as placid as they seem
“Depending on how you walk they can actually figure out who’s coming [to feed them] by our mannerisms. We have a new junior keeper and our male, Pig, he’s incredibly cheeky. Sometimes he’ll take the feeding tray and actually hide it from them. So he does play a lot of tricks on new keepers.”

They’ve a palate for protected plants
“In the wild they eat seagrass, but seagrass is a protected species of plant so we don’t actually go out and harvest it because we’d be ruining other marine habitats. So here at Sea Life we feed them lettuce – between 60-80 kg daily.”

But they’re picky 
“Every 10-15 minutes we’re replacing their trays. Naturally seagrass is quite crunchy and obviously lettuce will become soggy after the 15 minute mark, so then they’re not very interested in it. Sometimes we try and give them a bit of a variety. If you can imagine trying to put a piece of spinach into a bit of lettuce and then rolling it like a spring roll and putting it into the trays, that piece will come back when we pull the tray out. They’re super fussy – they know what we’re trying to do.”

Sam, close up, swimming with dugong
Sam and Wuru during her enrichment program
Photograph: Supplied

The aquarium’s sea cows are safest in human care
“Our dugongs are rescue dugongs. Our female sleeps on the surface and naturally wild dugongs sleep on the bottom. This is one of the reasons she wasn’t released, because she could be hit by boat or be a prime target for a shark because her belly would be so exposed and she’s quite vulnerable sitting at the surface.”

You can tell their age like you would a tree
“The oldest one on record is 72 years old and a way to tell how old they are – you know how a tree [trunk] has the rings – if you were to look at their tusks it’s the same thing; you’d be able to tell how old they are from the rings on their tusks.”

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