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Queensland-wide dugong surveys

James Cook University's TropWATER scientists are using lightweight planes with cameras to monitor the distribution and abundance of dugongs along Queensland's coast.  The large-scale aerial surveys will be conducted over two years from Cape York to Moreton Bay, starting in November 2022.

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About the surveys

Since the 1980s, dugongs have been surveyed every five years along the Queensland coast using highly trained observers in light aircrafts. These large-scale surveys provide critical information to assess trends in dugong numbers (including calf counts) and their distribution.

Imagery & artificial intelligence 

In the past, aerial surveys have relied on observers to manually count dugongs to give a snapshot of populations. For the first time, the 2022 aerial surveys will attach cameras to the planes to capture thousands of images. The hope is to transition surveys to use aerial images and artificial intelligence to track and monitor marine species.



Engaging with Traditional Owners and Indigenous Land and Sea rangers is essential to ensure awareness and cultural acceptance of our dugong surveys.  Our team is committed to engaging with communities and the general public about surveys and results. 


When and where do surveys begin?

The large-scale aerial surveys will be conducted over two years from Cape York to Moreton Bay, starting in November 2022 and finishing in December 2023. Following the surveys, scientists will analyse data and provide results to the public and communities. 


Dugong trends & concerns in Queensland

In 2016, the Dugong population on the urban coast of the Great Barrier Reef (Cooktown to Bundaberg)  was estimated at  3400,  with hotspots at  Hinchinbrook Island, Townsville and Shoalwater Bay. The dugong population along the urban coast is considered poor and its trend is deteriorating. 

Hervey Bay to the south of the Great Barrier Reef is an area of concern following a major loss of seagrass habitat early in 2022. The seagrass loss resulted from two flood events that smothered the seagrass and destroyed the dugongs’ main food source. This area will be surveyed in December 2022. 

The surveys of the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef (Cooktown to Cape York) were last surveyed in  2018-2019. The dugong population is estimated at about 7000, and is considered to be in good condition, stable or slightly increasing. This region will be surveyed in 2023. 


Analysing aerial images

For the first time, the 2022 surveys will use cameras in addition to observers to capture thousands of aerial images and compare aerial observers to animals detected in the images.


Our team will use a combination of manual and AI-based approaches to review the images and map dugong sightings (as well as other marine megafauna such as sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, rays and sea snakes). This comparative process is necessary to ensure that we can transition to using only cameras in future dugong population surveys. 

This work is led by JCU-TropWATER, in collaboration with:


Liddle's Air Services

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services

Queensland Department of Environmental Science

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

Edit Cowan University

The Australian Antarctic Division

The Great Barrier Reef dugong population aerial surveys are one of the critical Reef monitoring projects funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (Cape York to Bundaberg). The surveys in Queensland’s southern bays, Hervey Bay and Moreton Bay, are also funded by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water. Funding was also received from the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program (NESP) to support the image analysis work.

Research is conducted under James Cook University Animal Ethics A2798 and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Approval CSE148.

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