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Illustration by Philippe Coudray
Wesley Lyonagi and a local pushing a ri
A photo of Wesley Lyonagi and some local kids posing with a recently fished up ri
Roy Wagner's ri photos
Illustration by Philippe Coudray
Wesley Lyonagi and a local pushing a ri
A photo of Wesley Lyonagi and some local kids posing with a recently fished up ri
Roy Wagner's ri photos

Ri

The Ri, also called ilkai, ah-ree, and pishmeri, is an unknown sirenian or pinniped native to the shallow coastal waters of New Ireland, Bougainville and Manus Island, as well as the nearby Lihir and Tabar archipelagos and possibly in the northern Solomons. Ris are five to seven feet long and appear similar to a dugong, but also have qualities that make them seem eerily human-like, hence many of the ri’s regional names translating to “fish woman” or merperson. They have light brown or grey skin, front-facing eyes, a human-like head and neck with a protruding snout or mouth, and have two ridged and calloused flippers, sometimes even with fingernails. The ri's lower trunk terminates into a tail with two flippers at the end and has a noticeable backbone, unlike the similar dugong, which isn’t visible. 


Ris are aquatic and move in an undulating or rolling motion. They occasionally vocalize in strange whistling or whispering. They are said to eat fish. According to the local Barok tribe, who inhabit the islands ris live by, claim to occasionally net and even eat them. They are said to have strange, yellow-coloured fat.


One of the first recorded sightings of a ri was during midday in early October of 1973 by Gary Opit on the ship, Papuan Explorer. He claimed to have seen a brown, round head poking out of the water off the ship's bow. He noted that instead of the animal he saw raise its head above the surface and propel itself forward, diving headfirst like a dugong, whatever he saw descended tail first. In an unspecified time in the early 70’s, an elderly man from Aitape claimed that once he caught and then released a pishmary (coming from “fish-Mary, Mary being the Creole word for woman.” He was adamant it was not a dugong, which he caught and ate regularly. 


One of the most important figures in ri research is Roy Wagner, an anthropologist from the University of Virginia. In November of 1979, Wagner watched a ri swimming along the surface in Ramat Bay, New Ireland. It disappeared under the surface when a sawfish jumped out of the water, startling the ri. After Wagner’s sighting, he became fascinated in ris and interviewed various locals about them, and many, if not most locals have seen, heard of, or even have eaten them. 


Roy Wagner as well as J. Richard Greenwell, Gale J. Raymond and Kurt von Nieda, started an expedition to search for ris from June to July in 1983. They began their search by interviewing a local, who was a trained medic and quite knowledgeable on anatomy. He claimed to have seen a ri being butchered by fishermen. After searching Ramat Bay and not having any luck, they were told by a man that “ilkai”, a regional name for the ri, were seen almost daily in Nokon, a village 80 km south. By July 5th, they went to Nokon and actually saw a ri hunting fish in the shallow water 100 feet from shore. They watched it for about half an hour as it was chasing the fish, which were jumping out of the water to escape the ri. They later watched it dive into the deeper part of the bay. It had a dugong-like head, but rounder, with front-facing eyes, which were light brown, and had no dorsal fin. They noted it was quite flexible. They managed to take photos of the animal (above), but due to the photographic limitations at the time, they are not conclusive, but you can clearly see its back in one photo and its whale-like tail in the other.


On February 10th, 1985, scientists a part of the Ecosophical Research Association led by Thomas Williams, claimed to have seen a ri from the deck of their ship, the Reef Explorer. The captain of the ship, Capt. Kerry Piesch hastily put on his scuba gear and photographed the animal, which was about five feet long and effortlessly undulated under the water. They later concluded they probably saw a dugong. 


The most recent sighting, and one of the most intriguing, was when respected New Ireland man, Wesley Lyonagi posted three photos of a beached ri on his Facebook page in 2017, seemingly unaware it was an unknown animal (above).