Monachus monachus

Taxonomy: Kingdom Animalia : Phylum Chordata : Class Mammalia : Order Carnivora : Family Phocidae : Subfamily Monachinae

"We waited the whole morning and made the best of it, watching the seals come up in hundreds to bask upon the sea shore, till at noon the old man of the sea came up too..."

--Homer: Odysseus captures Proteus, Odyssey Book IV

This cute, lazy fellow, as the name indicates, is a denizen of the Mediterranean and surrounding seas. The Mediterranean monk seal's population range in ancient times stretched from the Black Sea to the Atlantic and as far south as Senegal. Its ecclesiastical name comes from its colour and head markings which make it look a bit like a Franciscan monk. The monk seal has been a fixture in the area since before the dawn of mankind, especially in the Aegean with its endless, rugged coastline, and is even mentioned in the Odyssey. Because of their obvious love of both sea and sun, seals were considered creatures dedicated to both Poseidon and Apollo and were regarded as bringers of good luck. The Mediterranean monk seal is probably the closest relative of the ancestor of all seals, which inhabited the Mediterranean 20 million years ago. It and the Hawaiian monk seal are the only remaining species of warm-water seals in the world.

Adult male seals are about 2.40 m (eight feet) in length and weigh in at a proud 310-320 kg, that's just under 700 lbs. Females are a bit smaller but not by much. Their fur is brown or dark grey with a paler belly, though males can turn almost completely black in old age. Their young, born year-round but mostly in late autumn, start at about 80 cm (30") in length, take to the water two weeks after birth and are weaned at around 18 weeks of age. They don't reach reproductive maturity until they're about four years old and can live to be over 20 years old in the wild.

Despite having lived around humans for thousands of years, and for millions of years before that, surprisingly little is known about the monk seal's habits. It's diurnal and is believed to live off fish and mollusks, primarily octopus, which it catches within a limited distance of its home and to the tune of about 3 kg per day. The problem here is that fishermen competing for already scarce resources tend to view it as a nuisance. The amount of fish the seals eat is trivial, it's the destruction of nets that costs. The seal is no happier about being caught up in fishing equipment and has a pretty hard time making a living itself.

Having the misfortune of living in an area that's been densely populated by humans since antiquity, it's been hunted since then. After all, clubbing seals in the Mediterranean is a hell of a lot less stressful and closer to home than sailing across the ocean to the Arctic to do so. All parts of the animal were used: its pelt for tents and clothing, its blubber for oil and its meat for food. The ancients thought that keeping a flipper under one's pillow would give the sleeper the blissful sleep of a basking seal. While the ancient Greeks are thought to have done admirably in preserving its numbers, a significant decline set in during Roman times. The seal was hunted throughout the middle ages and into the present. Said present has seen an end to hunting but has brought tourism, wars and other nuisances that disturb the quiet that these creatures depend on to raise their pups.

So, while the monk seal used to be the most abundant pinniped of the Mediterranean Sea, it is now the one closest to the brink of extinction and is listed as "critically endangered." Today it lives in isolated pockets on the coasts of Mauretania and north Africa, and around Madeira. Its largest contiguous range stretches from Cyprus to the northern Ionian Sea and about half the known population is thought to live around Greece. Only the Atlantic and east Mediterranean populations are numerous enough to stand a real chance of survival. It's thought that no more than 500 individuals still exist. The most optimistic figure is 650.

Conservation efforts through national parks in Greece, Turkey and Mauretania might tip the scales in the seal's favour but a population that small is in imminent danger of going the way of the dodo. Or, closer to home, that of its extinct cousin, the Caribbean monk seal. While scientists have failed to breed these seals in captivity, staff at the Northern Sporades National Marine Park have successfully raised orphaned pups and returned them to their natural habitat.

It has no enemies other than disease, pollution and man; an excellent swimmer and hunter, its agility in the water exceeds that of most shark species and provides an excellent defence against the few predatory fish large enough to take on a seal. As is the case with many other species the key to its survival lies in whether man will move over a bit and give it some breathing space.


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