The glossy gray pup scours the rocks under the Aegean Sea for octopus, surfacing occasionally with graceless splashes. Like an excitable marine Labrador retriever, he chases schools of small fry in circles, only relenting when juicier offerings catch his eye.
Finally, worn out or just full of fish, the young Mediterranean monk seal eventually hunkers down on a rock ledge, stretching out under the February sun.
As carefree as the pup appears, its species is mired in a fight for survival. The rarest of the 33 species of pinniped, the seal’s numbers hover around 600 animals in the wild—a precarious population that could very easily follow the Caribbean monk seal into extinction. The only other remaining species of living monk seal is the Hawaiian monk seal, which is also endangered, with about a thousand animals left. (Read about efforts to save the Hawaiian monk seal.)
Once found across the Mediterranean and in parts of the eastern Atlantic and Black Sea, the Mediterranean monk seal is now scattered in three isolated groups across Mauritania, the Portuguese island of Madeira, and the Greek and Turkish coastlines.
Its decline started in the Roman era, when hunters killed many of the animals for their meat, oil, and skin. In modern times, coastal development has swallowed up the species’ habitat, forcing the generally social animals to congregate in sea caves instead. Most recently, fishermen have further hampered the species due to accidental and deliberate killings, the latter as retaliation for eating fish.
But on Gyaros, a five-mile-long nature reserve with a dark past, the Mediterranean monk seal seems to be mounting a comeback, thanks to efforts by conservationists to turn the island into a seal sanctuary.
Uninhabited and mostly undeveloped due to its history as a prison and naval firing range, the island is wild and rich with sea caves—perfect habitat for these 700-pound beasts, known for their loud guttural barks and sometimes mischievous ways. (Watch videos that show the irresistible charm of seals.)
To attract the seals here, since 2017 conservationists have been removing many unexploded battleship shells; clearing sea caves of abandoned fishing nets, a frequent and often fatal trap for seals; and establishing a military-grade surveillance system on the island’s highest point to ward off intruders.
“The idea is to create a kind of refuge, a safety net, for the seal to breathe when things are difficult elsewhere,” said Christos Papadas, an environmental scientist with WWF, which is spearheading the project along with the Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal, as well as other nonprofits and government agencies.
“But this isn’t just for seals. We don’t know what could happen if the ecosystem loses its top predator,” Papadas says as he navigates a boat close to the Gyaros shoreline. As if to underscore his point, another young seal surfaces nearby, likely hunting octopus among the undersea rocks.
There are now 60 seals living on Gyaros, about 10 percent of the global total, and the species was recently upgraded from critically endangered to endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
But the seal’s return is not always welcomed by local fishermen, who feel that wildlife preservation efforts are coming at their expense.
“We don’t want to hurt seals,” says Maria Budori, a former head of the small fishermen’s association on Syros, the closest inhabited island. “But they have organizations supporting them. Who’s helping us? No one.”
And in the time of coronavirus, which has hit the global fishing industry hard, such conflicts may deepen, experts say.
A prison refuge
Largely treeless, covered with noisy sea birds, and flanked by steep cliffs, Gyaros can be a foreboding piece of rock—making it no wonder that the Romans and Byzantines saw it as a suitable place of exile for political undesirables.
In the years after World War II, military authorities appropriated the island, several hours sailing south of Athens, as a kind of Greek Alcatraz, depositing more than 20,000 political opponents there. Many of the imprisoned men and women, who suffered through brutal conditions, etched their names and tallies of how long they’d been captive, marks that are still visible on the walls of the crumbling jailhouse.
Most recently, the Greek navy repurposed Gyaros as a firing range, riddling its hills with untold amounts of explosives.
This notorious history spared the rise of mass global tourism that transformed so many of its neighboring islands, like Mykonos, Andros, and Tinos.
Though it’s too soon to fully gauge Gyaros’s impact on seal numbers, nearby islanders report more frequent sightings, and residents in parts of the western Mediterranean report seeing them for the first time at all.
“It’s not unusual for small islands to help with recovery. We’ve seen it before, and it can be quite simple,” says Jason Baker, a seal expert and advisor to the Marine Mammal Commission, a U.S. government agency.
“As long as they have somewhere to have pups and somewhere to eat, they’re generally happy.” (Read about a new branch added to the monk seal family tree.)
Most islanders seem to support the revival of one of Greece’s signature species, but fishermen are a vocal exception.
“Just this morning two seals chased my boat to get my fish. It is difficult to co-exist with them,” said Marcos Denaxas, who’s fished around Gyaros for 75 of his 81 years. “Creating more of them will just make it more difficult.”
Because Gyaros is a protected area, prime fishing grounds surrounding it are closed. For that reason, fishermen on Syros and other nearby islands, insist that conservationists are privileging seal welfare over their own, thereby adding to their financial troubles.
Fish prices have fallen due to Greece’s ongoing economic crisis—and they’ll likely fall further because of the pandemic, just as more islanders have taken to the seas to supplement their income.
Officials and conservationists say they’re mindful of the need to give fishermen a stake in the seals’ survival, according to Papadas, and say they plan to engage them in future ecotourism efforts on Gyaros.
Under the cover of darkness
Meanwhile, these tensions have led to illegal nighttime fishing in the waters around Gyaros— part of the reason for the island’s sophisticated security system. If a vessel breaches the three-mile restricted zone, high-definition cameras lock on and broadcast the feed to onshore coast guardsmen.
Intent on catching the fishermen in the act, WWF teams sometimes set off around 4 a.m. in their boats. “It’s like a spy game. We know they have people watching us,” said Ventouris Mpountouris, a WWF field technician.
Early one morning in February, a WWF team member’s phone beeped frantically as the Gyaros surveillance post reported an intruder. A boat was passing within a few hundred meters of the seals’ favored sea caves on the north side of the island. In this instance, it was a false alarm.
But fishermen seem determined to continue their illegal fishing. “You have to understand that these are our fisheries,” a fisherman told me on the condition of anonymity because of the illicit nature of his work. “Not the seals’. We won’t stop.”
A spokesperson for the Syros coast guard declined to speak on the record.
A glimmer of hope?
The seals evolved to thrive in the Mediterranean—but it was a very different sea then. (Read about the Mediterranean Sea’s fascinating history.)
For one, the seals have never been particularly fertile, so they’ve struggled to replace their frequent losses as the human population has boomed around them. They’ve also never needed to travel far from home, so their instinct is not to seek out new hunting grounds as their habitat has morphed into one of the planet’s most heavily trafficked seas. (Watch rescuers free a seal from a fishing line.)
Seals are also vulnerable to disease outbreaks: In 1997, more than 150 Mediterranean monk seals died from a mysterious virus in Mauritania. This is particularly worrisome because seals live in three fragmented populations, so if one is wiped out, it’s likely gone forever.
Lastly, rising sea levels due to climate change has also swamped many of the sandbars that seals use for resting and socializing, according to Baker.
Yet, despite it all, most of those involved in seal conservation remain bullish about their prospects of keeping the species alive.
“They’re incredibly tenacious,” Baker says. “It’s one of those species that if you just stop killing them, they’ll probably recover.”