Swimming with a Dugong Beats Finding Nemo in Vanuatu

dugong aka sea cow

Dugong, by Big Stock Photo

Just to see a Florida manatee up-close in the wild of the Everglades last year was a treat, but imagine how it feels to be swimming alongside a sea mammal (sometimes confused with the manatee), called the dugong in Vanuatu. You can tell the difference between manatee and dugong, which are related to the elephant, by the shape of the tail. The dugong tail is shaped like a whale’s. But I wasn’t on a hunt for dugong. For a good two hours, I had been snorkeling west of the The Havannah Resort, cruising along clusters of coral admiring the colorful fish, often stopping to float in circles above brain coral. I was on a hunt to find Nemo.

Anemone fish such as clownfish are all over Havannah Harbor by the docks, which is located on the northwestern side of Efate Island. I spotted so many varieties of beautifully hand-painted-by-nature reef fish I lost count. Mostly blue and yellow assortments of butterfly fish but also tons of damselfish and angel fish in almost every color imaginable, except the danged orange with the 3 white stripes, bordered in black.

This is what happens sometimes when I give myself a goal. The goal for yesterday was “find Nemo.” I begin to feel a bit disappointed if I don’t accomplish the goal and feel even more driven to continue the search until I am successful, regardless of how much time it takes or how exhausted I might become. It becomes a mission. I have passions for missions, which is why I make a darned good Sacramento REALTOR. I just don’t give up until my mission is completed.

My husband has another name for this affliction.

If a client tells me he wants me to do the impossible, then that’s what I do. I love challenges and adventures. This was an adventure — trying to find Nemo. Like the late Harry Chapin wisely stated: it’s the going, not the getting there, meaning it’s the journey, not the destination. Along the way to find Nemo, I discovered brilliant blue coral, in addition to a striking deeply blue starfish. He was draped over a small rock as though he had been out drinking all night and had tried to crawl home to a bigger rock but only made it as far as this tiny rock and said to himself, “oh, what the hell, good as place as any to crash,” and collapsed.

I also saw giant cucumbers, studied coral breathing in and out and swam over a 3-foot moray eel that I first mistook for a braided rope, and then freaked out a little. Small yellow fish, large purple fish, tiny black-and-white striped anemones, I finned my way through thousands of irridescent slivers of blue — it felt like an underwater Disneyland-ish acid trip. What was that 10 yards away? A giant F-ing creature. Was I hallucinating? It looked like the back of a small whale, creamy in color with a splattering of darker age spots like that which dots the face of Art Linkletter.

From my underwater view, it seemed to have poked its nose up along the top of the water.

I quickly stuck my head out of the water and tugged off my mask. There was nothing anywhere; I spun in a circle, put my mask back on and swam in the direction I last saw it. Had I been snorkeling for so long that I’m beginning to imagine dolphins or whales? The creature was huge, the size of a sofa, and then I came upon its shimmering body again.


Well, I was assured nothing in the water would hurt me unless I touched a lionfish, and this was not a lionfish, so I followed and swam almost alongside until the dugong swam faster and out to sea.

And this is how I ended up in Japan. Swimming with a dugong. Well, it’s what could have happened if I didn’t have the good sense to pull back. Sometimes you find something else when you’re on a mission that takes you off track and pulls you in a different direction, and that’s typically just as well, and it might even be better. The staff tells me I am fortunate and that most people who come to Havannah Harbor in Vanuatu will never see a dugong.

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