World’s rarest seal finds refuge on notorious prison island
After decades of hunting, Mediterranean monk seals now have a sanctuary on the “Alcatraz of Greece.” But will it be enough to prevent their extinction?
GYAROS, GREECEThe 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.
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.
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