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Dugongs, Mermaids and Mascots

11 June 2020

On June 8th each year, World Oceans Day is celebrated across the globe to focus attention on our oceans, by raising awareness through film screenings, beach clean ups, art contests and so much more. This year’s campaign #ProtectOurHome intends to grow a global movement that calls on world leaders to protect 30% of our planet by 2030, this includes our oceans which cover over 70% of the Earth’s surface.

To find out more about #ProtectOurHome and how you can get involved, visit the World Oceans Day website.


World Oceans Day social media campaign

Here in Qatar, life is defined by the magnificent sea that surrounds us and issues of sustainability are central to Qatar’s National Vision, which aims to “transform Qatar into an advanced society capable of achieving sustainable development” by 2030. One of the four central pillars within this vision is environmental development, which aims for harmony between economic growth, social development and environmental protection.

What better way to bring World Oceans Day and Qatar’s sustainability goals together than to tell you more about the mysterious ‘lady of the sea’ the Dugong or ‘sea cow’ as it’s sometimes known, whose population thrives in our very own waters.

Dugongs in Qatar

Did you know that the Dugong has lived in Qatari waters for over 7,500 years? The Arabian Gulf hosts the second largest population of Dugongs in the world and while Dugongs are often found in pairs of two - a mother and a calf, Qatar hosts a strange phenomenon. In the Northwest region, herds of 600 - 700 Dugongs have been found swimming together, which are the biggest herds ever recorded in the world. ExxonMobil Research Qatar are currently conducting important ongoing research to investigate this phenomenon, as explored in this video produced by Al Jazeera.


What in the world is a Dugong?

Popularly known as ‘sea cows’, Dugongs do not fall into the category of fish, instead, they are shy but adventurous marine mammals classified as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as they are affected by fishing activities, coastal pollution, hunting, and injury by boat strikes.

Dugongs are herbivores in that they feed exclusively on seagrass, which has long green grass-like leaves and grows in shallow coastal areas. They travel for food and can eat around 40 kilograms of seagrass per day. Seagrass meadows are an important part of the marine environment and form a complex ecosystem that are as important as coral reef systems. The meadows also play an important role in carbon storage as they account for 10% of the annual carbon storage of the oceans. Many marine species rely on this habitat for both food and as a place to breed and raise their young. When Dugongs graze in these seagrass meadows they help maintain a healthy habitat.

As mammals that can breathe oxygen, the Dugongs come to the surface for air and can hold their breath for around 6-11 minutes as they dive into the water to feed.


Image of a Dugong

The Myth of the Mermaids

The word ‘Dugong’ is derived from the Malay word for the animal ‘Duyung’ which means ‘lady of the sea’ or ‘mermaid’. These gentle creatures have carved a mythical legend for themselves throughout history as sailors across cultures when they caught a glimpse of them swimming, believed them to be young women in the sea.

In Greek mythology, mythical mermaids known as Sirens were dangerous creatures who lured sailors with their enchanting voices, causing boats to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. Scientifically, both Dugongs and Manatees belong to a group called the 'Sirenian order'. The word 'Sirenian' is derived from the word 'Sirens' from the Greek myth of the deadly mermaids. This could be due to the constant misinterpretation of sailors perceiving these Sirenians as women in the sea, thus highlighting a connection between Dugongs and Manatees with the myth of the mermaids.

When Christopher Columbus encountered the Sirenians during his first journey to the America’s he wrote in his journal:

“On the previous day [8 Jan 1493], when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [Haiti], he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.”
(Voyages of Columbus 218)

The Dugong Mascot at The National Museum of Qatar

The National Museum of Qatar (NMoQ) celebrates Qatari heritage and culture, including its long maritime tradition. With the abundance of Dugongs in Qatar’s waters, holding both a special cultural and environmental significance, the Dugong was chosen as the museum’s own official mascot.

The museum now plans to celebrate the Dugongs through a special upcoming exhibition set to open next year in collaboration with ExxonMobil Research Qatar.

If you’ve been inspired by the Dugong, why not take part in the museum’s Open Call to submit creative designs for the museum’s new mascot. Aimed at both local and international artists and designers from all age groups and nationalities, the deadline for submitting designs is July 1st 2020.


NMoQ Dugong Mascot Open Call Poster

If you are lucky enough to win, then your name will be attached to the Dugong mascot permanently. You will also receive recognition by the Chairperson of Qatar Museums, Her Excellency Shaikha Al Mayassa along with the director of NMoQ, Shaikha Amna. In addition, you will be a VIP guest at the Dugong exhibition opening and will be covered in local and international press related to the exhibition and the mascot design competition. Finally, you will also receive a special gift package from the NMoQ gift shop and a free culture pass membership enabling you to come and visit Qatar’s many museums including NMoQ.

It’s time to get busy and join in the Dugong mascot design competition in celebration of World Oceans Day! We can’t wait to see your entries.

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