The Sirens’ Last Song: A Farewell to the Dugong

Tuesday, November 17th, 2020 | Blog

The lonely helmsman, lost at sea, hears women’s voices singing a powerful, seductive melody. Perhaps the moon is high, and he glimpses them – seated upon a reef of sea-girt rock, some combing their hair, others beckoning him nearer. Hypnotised by their beauty and their song, he puts his tiller round and steers straight for the rocks. The deadly song of the sirens has claimed another crew.

‘What song,’ asked the Roman Emperor Tiberius of his court philosophers, ‘did the sirens sing?’ They were unable to answer, and paid dearly for their ignorance. Today, we think we know the answer: a modest repertoire of chirps, whistles, squeaks and barks, similar to dolphin calls but well within the range of human hearing. The song of the sirens is the voice of the dugong.

To those who believe that every tall story must have a basis in fact, the best explanation for ancient legends of sirens and mermaids comes in the shape of this family of portly, lugubrious-faced marine mammals, otherwise best known for their lethargy and shyness. Manatees and dugongs are collectively known as sirenia, a name that reflects their assumed connection with Homeric myth. Writing about the dugongs of Mannar and Kalpitiya (which he called Calpentyn), Sir James Emerson Tennent, Colonial Secretary of Ceylon in the 1840s, was happy to endorse the connection:

The rude approach to the human outline, observed in the head of this creature, and the attitude of the mother when ng her young, clasping it to her breast with one flipper while swimming with the other, holding the heads of both above water; and when disturbed, suddenly diving and displaying her fish-like tail – these, together with her habitual demonstrations of strong maternal affection, probably gave rise to the fable of the ‘mermaid’; and thus that earliest invention of mythical physiology may be traced to the Arab seamen and the Greeks, who had watched the movements of the dugong in the waters of Mannar.

– Ceylon, 1859

Such speculations, whether justified or not, were by no means original to Tennent. They are already implied in the classification sirenia, which was in use naturalists more than fifty years before the retired colonial secretary published his book Sketches. It is certainly true that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew of Sri Lanka, and it is possible that their ships once visited the ancient port of Mantota (Manthai) on the island of Mannar, hard by the known haunts of the dugong. There are, however, a few difficulties with this literalist explanation: dugongs don’t like rough seas, don’t sit on rocks, and while they may superficially resemble human beings, the resemblance is far from seductive.

At any rate, we do know that dugongs have been present in the coastal waters of northwestern Sri Lanka since at least the Homeric era. Archaeological excavations at Mantota have revealed fragments of dugong bone from three-thousand-year-old strata, indicating that these animals were part of the diet of people who lived in the area at that time. In fact, the locals were still hunting and eating dugongs in Tennent’s day; their flesh, he reported, was ‘represented as closely resembling veal’The Sinhalese name for the animal, muhudhu oora, translates as ‘sea pig’. The reason – or at least one of the reasons – for the decline of the dugong in Sri Lankan waters seems all too clear.

Text by Howard Martenstyn, Out of the Blue