The wind, Yarralee
The wind blew hard that early April morning over the Con Dao Archipelago in the East Sea, 200 km off the southern Vietnamese mainland. In the last seven days tropical storm Neoguri, had been heading towards the coast of Vietnam before it turned north towards China. Brooding clouds sailed across the sky like great ethereal ships making for an anchorage over the peaks of Con Son, the largest island of fifteen in the archipelago. The wind bore the persona of a woman letting her hair down in a tempestuous, passionate mood and I call her Yarralee. Like a siren, she echoed a haunting melody, fluting through the crannies of the rocky slope as I clambered precariously to the peak of Lo Voi Cape.
The Sirenian, Dugong dugon
The cape, flanked by Con Son and Dat Doc Bays overlooks the reefs and seagrass meadows which are the feeding grounds of the Sirenian, Dugong dugon. It was mainly from this vantage point that Nick Cox had documented his observations of the dugong between November 2001 and January 2002.
Braving weather and sea conditions in the mornings and afternoons, Nick listed thirty-three individual dugongs of which fourteen were juveniles at depths between three to five meters. In thirty-seven days of observations, he noted some dugongs stayed on the surface for over eight minutes and submerged for an average of five minutes. The dugongs would surface almost horizontally, exhale in a mist of water, arch or roll and dive head first, flicking its tail flukes above the water. On several occasions Nick saw mother and calves together and once 3 dugongs together. As the dugongs drifted in the current and foraged in the seagrass meadows, Nick noted some playful aspects of dugong behavior:
“On two occasions dugongs were seen in water as shallow as 1m, approaching the beaches to the left and right-hand-side of the rock point. During the first occasion two similarly sized dugong juveniles were observed chasing each other at swimming speeds considerably faster than normal, nudging one another with their heads. A second event involved a dugong adult spinning along its length whilst swimming forwards in the shallow surf. Clearly visible on this dugong were large fish that were attached to the dugong’s flanks mid-way between the flippers and tail.”
Nick’s attempts to approach the dugongs in the water using snorkel and fins only yielded a cloud of sediment and suspended fragments of seagrass but on one occasion, approaching in a small boat, he came to within 15 meters of a dugong. At the end of his study, Nick concludes that the Dugongs he observed at Con Dao, besides those that may be resident, could have been part of a larger population that move between seagrass habitats in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
I sat gazing pensively over the sea and the island of Bay Canh to the east. The cloud ships had sailed beyond the archipelago and sunlight gleamed off the small swells surging steadily over the reefs onto the beaches below. Yarralee ruffled my hair as I contemplated the fate of the dugongs in Con Dao.
Dugong mortalities & anecdotal sightings
Available reports of dugong mortalities from 1977 indicated a total of eleven dead from drowning in fishing nets or unknown causes. The latest was a dugong found dead in January 2011 at Con Son harbor. It was about 12 years old at a meter and a half long, weighing some 80 kilos. The cause of death was unknown.
Besides the observation made by Nick Cox, anecdotal sightings include seven to ten dugongs between June and October 1996 by fishermen from Hong who were culturing coral reef fishes in Con Son Bay. At the end of January 2007, two adults and a juvenile dugong had appeared together in Con Son bay off the town waterfront. For four consecutive afternoons, the dugongs were watched by tourists and residents as they frolicked for about half an hour. In 1998, scientist L. J Porter sighted about seven to ten dugongs at the south eastern tip of Con Son Island. In such inclement seas, my foray to the lookout point atop Lo Voi Cape had not yielded any sightings, although Nick had made observations during choppy and rough sea conditions. I must confess that I have yet to encounter the dugong in several extended visits to Con Dao since 1995 but have been compensated with other aspects of the archipelago’s fascinating flora and fauna. I clambered down the cape buffeted by Yarralee.
Other creatures of Con Dao
Con Dao is splendid in its remoteness with its hilly, forested landscape, sand dune hillocks and marshes and much of its flora and fauna protected in national park zones. The shorelines are buffered by mangrove or sculptured boulders while tidal grottoes are carved out of sheer cliffs. Bays are fringed by lively reefs, with white coral sands or pebbly beaches. The unique diversity of the archipelago’s topography and micro-climate host a menagerie of terrestrial and aquatic species.
In the forests, I have often encountered loquacious birds flitting through the canopy in waves, the endemic Black Giant Squirrel scrambling about fruiting trees and Long-tailed Macaques roving on the ground. In the months of March and April, migratory herons and egrets in bright breeding plumage gather by the lotus, water lily and reed filled lakes of Con Son. Kingfishers perch motionless on shrubs that thrive in the unique waterlogged ecology of the dune marshes while hawks glide above. Dragonflies herald the rain when they hover and flit just above the ground and I know it will be warm and sunny whenever they fly at treetop height. Boating out to the tiny egg shaped Trung islet, Bridled, Great Crested and Roseate terns circled about while the Brown Noddy and Brown Booby nested in the rock face. Black-naped terns frequent Troc Islet while the Mangrove Whistler is abundant at Tre Nho Islet. The avian fauna of the archipelago host some endemic species including the Nicobar Pigeon, Red-billed Tropicbird, Pied Imperial Pigeon and Masked Booby.
The Lighthouse, Bay Canh Island
On the island of Bay Canh, a French colonial lighthouse built in 1887 stands like a lonely sentinel at the edge of the easternmost peak, 212 meters above the landing beach. A steep concrete pathway through the jungle leads to the low walled compound of the living quarters girding the beacon tower, surrounded by Frangipani trees. Inside, rooms with huge arched windows flank the aisle leading to the spiral staircase of the beacon tower.
On the night I stayed over as guest of the lighthouse keeper, the wind was furious, whistling through the shuttered windows and swaying the supple branches of the Frangipani trees in a sensuous dance, scattering fragrant white blooms. The rotating beacon threw cones of light into the darkness, its triple beams visible at ten second intervals from 31 nautical miles away, surely a comfort to wave tossed mariners on such a night. It dawns a pastel blue, the air sweetly scented and the skies clear, blending into the curved horizon of the sea. A few fishing boats in the bay far below huddled together with tattered flags fluttering in the breeze while a white bellied sea eagle soared the thermal updrafts.
In the afternoon, I had gone down to wade in the bay as the receding tide exposed the reef flat. Starfish, Sea Cucumbers, little crabs and fish were feeding in the shallows and there were as many brilliant blue mantled clams as I had ever seen, embedded in coral beds. Indeed, scientific reports state that Con Dao has the highest density of giant clams (Tridacna gigas) in the South China Sea besides over a dozen rare or endemic coral species. Clams are often harvested for food and once I had dived with the Park’s resident marine biologist to collect giant clams for relocation to the safe haven of waters fronting Cat Lon beach. Here, rangers are stationed to protect the reefs and turtle nesting site.
Turtles in the night
Cat Lon beach, on the narrow spit of land that connects the two parts of Bay Canh Island, is among some seventeen beaches known as nesting sites of the endangered Green and Hawksbill turtle. In previous years, between the months of June and September, some 300 turtles nested annually on five of these beaches including Cat Lon. On a visit there I had seen hatchlings the rangers had placed in basins to be released at night; slipped into the sea in the cloak of darkness, free of winged predators, monitor lizards and fish active during daylight. I sat out in the darkness between two and five in the morning, watching meteors blaze fading trails through the atmosphere to the symphony of the surf and crinkling shell debris. I scanned for turtles coming ashore but it was only at dawn when I ventured to the far end of the beach that I saw the tracks of a turtle that had come to nest undetected.
For freedom, for life
The history of the archipelago is at once tumultuous and poignant. Like the siren songs that threatened to lure Odysseus and his men to their deaths, thousands of Vietnamese, enraptured by the song of freedom, were imprisoned in Con Dao during the French colonial era early in the 19th century. It continued to serve as a penal island during the Vietnam War and came to the attention of the world when Tom Harkin (now Iowa’s US Senator) exposed its infamous “Tiger Cages” with photographs published in Life Magazine.
Vo Thi Sau, the rebel girl
Hang Duong cemetery enshrines the grave of Vo Thi Sau, the first woman martyred for the freedom of her country. At the age of 14, this young Viet Minh Revolutionary had lobbed a grenade killing several French soldiers. In January 1952, at the age of 19, she was executed at Phu Hai Prison. On my first visit to the cemetery, lingering into the fading twilight and walking quietly among the graves, I had a strangely vivid impression; it was as if I could see the graceful, ethereal forms of those who had fought and died for freedom moving amongst the fragrant Frangipani trees with words of comfort “It’s all right now, our motherland is free…”
In the years since 2005, the seductive, siren songs of Con Dao have brought me to its shores to stay for weeks or months at a time. This beautiful oceanic outpost imbues a sense of peaceful solitude and evokes an innocent sense of wonder. Perhaps it is the way the wind whispers, or when twinkling fireflies light a darkened bedroom or an orphaned squirrel scrambles onto your shoulder. I can hardly describe the kaleidoscope of wonder in just these pages but I would wish you could hear the songs of Yarralee.