Endangered Monk Seals Find a Secret Refuge

The world's most endangered seal, a rare Mediterranean monk seal, has found a hideout on an Aegean island in Greece. Scientists refuse to share the specific location with the public.

The island is the only place where these particular monk seals are able to relax on open beaches. The presence of humans caused the seals to begin hiding out in inaccessible caves, and secrecy is the key to their survival. Fewer than 600 individuals remain (perhaps around 450), and they are one of the most endangered mammals in the world.

While advocates of sustainable travel might argue that well-behaved tourists can help endangered species via donations and widespread concern, scientists disagree in this case. These particular monk seals are in serious jeopardy, and they need peace and quiet.

In ancient times, seals lived on open beaches, where they gave birth, gathered together, and barked in the fresh air. However, unlike some seals, these particular monk seals are very shy, and not fond of the frolicking humans.

Over the years, human disturbance (including tourism, population growth and industry) pushed the seals off the beaches and into dark, inaccessible caves.

Seals give birth in the coastal caves, and therefore more pups die during storms. Their population continues to dwindle.

This earless seal was once widespread, and found on beaches throughout the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, and the Atlantic. The Mediterranean Monk Seal went extinct in the Sea of Marmara in the late 1990's due to heavy ship traffic. Other populations have followed suit.

However, on the secret, recently discovered island, the number of annual seal pups is higher than anywhere else in the Mediterranean.

Dr. Alexandros Karamanlidis, of the Mom Researchers (the name is derived from the Latin name of the species, Monachus monachus), says the seals only survived because of secluded islands around Greece. The Mom society is asking the Greek government to make the island a marine protected area.

In the past, the Greek government has taken an ambiguous stance regarding the seals. In the 1970's, it's possible that oil companies used the Monk Seal Sanctuary project to encourage competition between Greek and Turkish governments and push for oil extractions. According to author William Johnson, the Greek secret service, the YPEA sabotaged the conservation project.

The monks seals may be one of those sad cases in which the humans won't ever coexist happily. It's hard to say what this means for seals in the future, but at least, for now, they have a place to hide.

Photo credit: ErgoSum88