From August 1973 to December 1974, I dwelt amongst the living wonders on the world's largest tropical island, New Guinea, studying the flora and fauna with biologists at the Wau Ecology Institute, lecturing on ecology at the Lae Teachers College and living with Stone Age tribal people. Between 2 and 7 October 1973, I was travelling on the Papuan Explorer, a 340ton vessel carrying cargo along the northern coast of Papua New Guinea between Lae and Vanimo, delivering supplies and a few passengers to Wewak and Aitape. During the five-day voyage, I spent much of my time identifying the marine life that included large fish, sharks, rays, spinner dolphins and sea birds. On 3 October, around midday, I observed directly in front of the bow a round dark head on the sea surface that looked more human than anything else. At the approach of the vessel, the creature's head suddenly submerged straight down beneath the water as if it had pulled itself under by the use of its flippers and tail. I was standing near the bow, and as we passed over the animal I obtained a clear view as it sank vertically about two metres below the surface. I saw a dark head and an elongated body pulling itself straight down through the clear water by the use of its tail. It was human-sized, though I could see no sign of arms or fins. I wondered if it may have been a dugong. I had previously examined an old drawing from Sir James Emerson Tennent's 1868 book Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon1 of two female dugongs resting on the water's surface with their heads raised vertically in the air and each suckling her young on her breasts. I had observed dugongs feeding in Moreton Bay, near Brisbane, and had closely examined an injured dugong as it was washed ashore on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland in 1968. These were large, stout animals that never hung in the water in a vertical position. They always remained horizontal, feeding on sea grass and swimming to the surface to raise their whiskered snout to inhale air before rapidly diving to resume feeding. Observations of dugongs have proved that the animals never behave as the old illustration had depicted.
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