Centuries ago the Mediterranean Monk Seal was an everyday event, found in great numbers emerging from the sea and stretched out lazing on the sandy shores. The Mediterranean seal, the Monachus-Monachus today is the number one species under threat of extinction in Europe.
With only 200-250 living in Greek waters and less than 500 are thought to remain in the world. Diminished into two surviving areas, one habitat is the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa and the other, here in the waters of the Mediterranean. Where they remain still the most endangered mammal in Europe.
With only around 20 being recorded around Kefalonia’s shores. They survive in these waters with another threatened and endangered species, the sea turtles Caretta caretta.
The surviving monk seal population in Greece has decreased to seriously low levels. Apart from the common hostility to these marine creatures from fishermen, the disruptive effects of two world wars and the now rapid progress of industries and the associated pollution, the most significant factor in the species’ decline is the accelerated increase in mass tourism. This along with tourist developments next to the coastlines inevitably brings the increasing disturbance and destruction of the natural habitats. Not to mention the rapid increase in pleasure and motorboat activities which, during the breeding and weaning seasons, are regarded as a major threat to the species.
This pursuit of enjoyment by an inconsiderate minority can cause fear, abandonment of the pups and unfortunately, in some cases death. Believe it or not even in ancient Greece, monk seals were protected, their display of great love for sea and sun placed them under the guardianship of the gods Poseidon and Apollo.
These animals were mentioned by Homer and Aristotle and even depicted on one of the first coins to be stamped in 500 BC. The fishermen and seafarers, who caught sight of the animals playing in the waves or plodding slowly on the beaches considered that to be a omen of good fortune. Chronicled throughout history, we have all been made well aware that humans have hunted seals for their own survival for many hundreds of years.
The trusting and inquisitive nature of these creatures has made them easy prey for hunters and fishermen, who dispatched them instantly using spears, but when the animals were netted and clubs were used, these savage culls became a blood bath. The seals were killed mainly for the pelts that went into making of clothing, shoes and tents giving excellent protection against adverse weather conditions. The meat of the animal was consumed, with the fat being rendered down for oil to be used in lamps.
Evidence has suggested that after the fall of the Roman empire the species was severely depleted. However, a decrease in its necessity, with the introduction of the more refined olive especially within the Mediterranean areas may have possibly allowed the monk seal to gain a interim recovery period, though not to original levels.
During the Middle Ages trading in seal pelts once again peaked in certain regions, practically wiping out the larger colonies. For the ones that survived a hard lesson was learnt, they no longer grouped together on open beaches and rocky outcrops, but instead found refuge in caves and along inaccessible and rocky coast lines.
Consequently today these reclusive creatures hide so well that little information is now available. The seal Monachus-Monachus or Monk seal as is also known, because of the flap of skin behind its head, which looks like a monk’s cowl and belongs to one of the largest species of seal in the world. Its life span is up to 40 years but today mostly only 20 if lucky, with males and females looking almost identical. Males weight in about 315kg with an average length of 2.4m. The females are only slightly smaller, weighting approximately 300kg. Adults are generally brown or grey on the back. A white patch is common on the underside of the belly and others have irregular mottled light patches on the stomach. The older males tend to be black. Pups are born between 88 to 103cm in length and weight 16 to 18kg. The Mediterranean monk seal pups are born with a white or yellow patch on the stomach and have a black, woolly coat.
The Mediterranean monk seal has been virtually eradicated from most of its original habitat by human encroachment and females now pup only in caves in remote and relatively undisturbed areas. Males and females are thought to reach sexual maturity between 5 and 6 years, although some females may mature as early as 4 years.
The Mediterranean seals give birth about once a year, usually every two years. The seals are always born on land, in dark, well-protected sea-caves. The birth period last from August to December. The new-born are about one metre in size and weigh approximately 15 kilos. They will suckle for about three months and then learn to find their food for themselves. Monk seal pups can swim and dive at about two weeks of age and are weaned at about 16-17 weeks. They need food equivalent to 5% of their body weight per day and will travel huge distances to find it.
Their main diet is fish, octopus, squid and seaweed. Despite being a mammal, the Monk seals metabolism allows it to hold its breath under water for up to 15 minutes. Special muscles in the nose block off its nostrils helping it to dive down to depths of around 100 metres.
Around Kefalonia’s rugged coastline there are many large sea caves and these make ideal places for these creatures to live. If you are lucky enough to see a monk seal, do not follow it or frighten it disturb any way only observe from a distance.