Dugong capture in Shark Bay
Capturing a dugong for research in Shark Bay.

Dugong Research in Shark Bay

Shark Bay is home to 10,000–12,000 dugongs (Dugong dugon). This equates to 10% of the world’s entire population, considered globally vulnerable to extinction. Since Shark Bay’s dugong population is large and secure, it is ideal to study. Breeding and foraging behaviour has been researched, as well as the dugong’s interaction with predators such as tiger sharks. Insight gained from these studies assists in making informed and justified decisions for the conservation management of the dugong and its habitat.

You can learn more about the dugong here.

Tagging and tracking

Dugongs avoid water temperatures less than 18º C, and Shark Bay’s dugongs undertake a seasonal migration to warmer waters during the winter months. Since 1999 a comprehensive study has tracked dugong movements within the Shark Bay Marine Park and identified important migration paths and feeding grounds.

Dugong capture from a small dinghy
Catching dugongs for research requires the use of
highly-manoeuvrable inflatable boats to get close to the animals.
Employing the skills and knowledge of the local Aboriginal community, the dugongs are captured in the water and equipped with a Global Positioning System (GPS) tag.
A strict handling protocol is followed to minimise stress to the animal, and the entire procedure is completed within 15 minutes.
  • A foam ‘noodle’ is used to cradle the dugong so it can breathe at all times.
  • The GPS tracking tag is attached – not to the animal itself, but via a padded harness which fits snugly around the dugong’s tailstock (just above the fluke).
  • Information such as length, girth and sex are recorded, and a sample is taken to determine DNA.
As the dugongs move around Shark Bay, the aerials on their tag communicate with satellites to record their position with an accuracy of within 5m. This fine-scale resolution enables researchers to hone in on feeding grounds to determine the dugongs’ favoured food sources, and the time of year they are most frequented.
  • Insight into the dugongs’ seasonal foraging activities has resulted in the maintenance of two Sanctuary Zones and two Special Purpose Zones within the Shark Bay Marine Park.
  • These zones are subject to boating and other restrictions at certain times of the year, to protect the dugongs and their habitat.

Award-winning research

The project is an important collaboration between the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, the Yadgalah Aboriginal Corporation (Inc.), Edith Cowan University and James Cook University. The Gordon Reid Foundation, UNESCO World Heritage and the Natural Heritage Trust, Coast and Clean Seas also help fund this project.
  • In 2004 the Yadgalah Aboriginal Corporation was awarded the prestigious national Indigenous Landcare Award for its achievements.
  • Shark Bay’s Aboriginal people hunt dugong as a traditional cultural practice. Knowledge about dugong ecology has enabled the community to continue to hunt in a sustainable manner.
  • The study also empowers the local community, enabling the passing of traditional knowledge from older to younger men.
  • The project serves as a model for other research projects involving traditional owners, government and scientific organisations.
The study is also notable for other reasons.
  • The use of GPS technology on a marine animal was a first for Australia.
  • In another first, an automated remote release mechanism was built into the tag unit, enabling researchers to retrieve the tag and harness without having to recapture the animal and cause it further stress.
Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, the Shark Bay marine ecosystem and the dugong all reap the benefits of this study. More research is planned for the future, depending on the availability of funding. You can search for scientific papers about dugong research here.