Mediterranean monk seal break in spring

Facts and figures of one of the rarest mammals on earth

The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) belongs to the Phocidae aka the true seal family. Just like the California sea lion, Elephant seal and Hawaian monk seal. Species belonging to the family of Phocidae, do not have an external ear lobe and their hind flippers are bound to their hips in such a way that they cannot bring them under their body to walk on them, which makes them less mobile on land.

Adult males weigh up to a whopping 320 kilogram and can reach a length of 2.8 m. Females are slightly smaller.

Their body is torpedo-like, which, in combination with their flippers, makes moving in the aquatic environment much easier. Mediterranean monk seals do not have external ears, but small acoustic holes. Their long, smooth whiskers function as sensory organs. Juvenile and adult Mediterranean monk seals have a close-cropped pelt, which is usually black, brown or silver-gray on the back and lighter at the belly.

Systematically wiped out since the Roman times

Large colonies of monk seals, which were often described in antiquity, were systematically wiped out during the Roman times for their meat, skin and oil. Occasionally, monk seals were even used to entertain crowds in the Roman arenas. Can you imagine!

Driven to extinction

Populations of Mediterranean monk seals  have fallen sharply in the last two centuries. The systematic hunting and persecution of the species over the past centuries appears to have been the main reason for the dramatic decline of the Mediterranean monk seal.  The intensive killings that occurred in the last two centuries appear to have driven the species to extinction in the Black Sea and in most of the southern Mediterranean Basin (Spain, France) and in the northern Mediterranean Basin (Italy).

Besides the culling aspect related with the species, multiple differrent threats have driven the species to the brink of extinction including disturbance  caused by tourism (occuring on the seals remote breeding islands), depletion of fish stocks and, like with all other wildlife, escpially habitat destruction.

Because populations were strongly reduced well before the turn of the twentieth century, the acquisition of knowledge on the behavioural and ecological traits of this seal has been hampered.

An endangered species

With a total number of approximately 700 individuals worldwide, the species is now listed as one of the most endangered mammals (IUCN 1996) on earth. Mediterranean monk seals lived along the coasts of the Black Sea, throughout the entire Mediterranean Sea, at the Atlantic islands of Madeira, the Azores and Cape Verde. Along the northwestern coast of Africa the species lived from Morocco in the north all the way south to present Senegal and Gambia.

Nowadays, the original distribution of the species has been significantly reduced and Mediterranean monk seals can be found only in four isolated, disjunct populations:

  1. A small population of approximately 40 individuals in the Archipelago of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean.
  2. A colony of approximately 220 individuals on the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa at the Cabo Blanco Peninsula. A mass die-off occurred in 1997 that reduced that population by two thirds, and the colony has only partially recovered.
  3. A small population of perhaps fewer than 10 individuals along the Moroccan and Algerian Mediterranean coast. However, the lack of systematic monitoring and conservation actions in that area make the survival of this small population uncertain.
  4. The highest number of seals can be found in the eastern Mediterranean Basin, mainly in the Ionian and Aegean Seas in Greece and along the Mediterranean coasts of Turkey.

Recently, observations of monk seal individuals have been recorded in Israel, Libya, Cyprus, Croatia and Italy. This is a hopeful sign that the species will be able to return to its oldest areas of distribution.

Nearly half of the world’s population lives in the Greek waters

The largest population of the endangered Mediterranean monk seal lives in Greece and is estimated to number approximately 300 individuals. Monk seals are widely distributed throughout the entire coastline of the country and show a strong preference for isolated and inaccessible islands, islets or parts of the coastline on the mainland.

Limited but reliable tour information

The place we will visit during our ‘EB5 Mediterranean monk seal break’  is less than one hour driving from Greece’s capital Athens. We will embark a small vessel and spend two or three morning with some resident seals. During day time we will spend time in the field with a focus on birdwatching. When leaving from Thesaloniki, as visit to lake Kerkini is an option too. More information is not disclosed due to exclusivity and more over: the protected status of the species.