08 May 2011

Monk seals in the Northern Gulf of Evia

On March 18th, 2011 we were following a group of 20 bottlenose dolphins moving away from a polluted bay in the Northern Gulf of Evia, Greece. The dolphins had been feeding around the cages of fish farms located in the bay, in waters contaminated by the discards of a large smelting plant.

The sun had set and light was dim. However, we wanted to take a few more photos of the dolphin's dorsal fins, to allow for individual identification based on natural markings. Much to our surprise, a monk seal head suddenly appeared amidst the dolphin backs.

The animal came close to our inflatable and stopped at about 3 m, staring at us with inquisitive large eyes. This odd situation lasted for what felt like a relatively long time — possibly 10 seconds — giving to Silvia an opportunity of taking close-up photos of her head and range of expressions. The seal seemed unconcerned by the dolphins surfacing all around, but she was very interested in our boat and especially in Silvia, who was carefully inspected.

Then the animal swam away, and it was then that we spotted another monk seal: a juvenile. This one was apparently looking for the adult animal — possibly her mother — elevating her head above the dark-blue waters. A few surfacings and both seals had gone.

The dolphins did not seem to bother and they kept swimming away. We returned to them to take a few more photos before it was completely dark.

Back at the field station, while looking at the beautiful monk seal portraits, we recalled a recent report of an animal being shot in that same area, as well as similar stories told by local fishermen and fish farm workers.

Because Mediterranean monk seals Monachus monachus occasionally depredate fishing gear they get killed by angry fishermen who regard them as vermin. Few shelters exist where a monk seal mother can hide undisturbed and raise her offspring. Their prey is being increasingly depleted by overfishing. Their habitat and food polluted by manmade toxic contaminants. Yet, these two animals had managed to survive under adverse circumstances: an assertion of the species' resilience to eradication.

We were lucky to experience such a close encounter with two of these rare and elusive marine mammals, classified as 'Critically Endangered' in the IUCN Red List. Two monk seals approached our boat and got a few shots — but happily this time it wasn't bullets.

(Photo by S. Bonizzoni)

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