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Dolphins, Turtles, and Rare Dugongs Return to Thailand’s Tourist-Free Waters

By Preeyapa T. Khunsong and Jerry Harmer, Associated Press

Apr 27, 2020

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

Courtesy of Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation via AP

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

A number of sea animals such as dugongs—a threatened marine species closely related to the manatee—have been sighted swimming near the country’s uncrowded southern coast amid strict coronavirus shutdowns.

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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 have made their presence known.

Drone video footage released by the Department of National Parks shows a 30-strong herd of dugongs on Wednesday, April 22, off Libong island in Trang province. They were feeding on seagrass and occasionally surfaced to breathe.

Naturalists report other marine animals, such as dolphins and sea turtles, 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 when asked about the dugongs. “This species of mammal is very sensitive to speedboats 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 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 seagrass.

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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.

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Thon said there were also reports that 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 between 70 and 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 between 10 and 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.

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