© Chris Papadas / WWF Greece
Seals

Although their scientific name, Monachus monachus, may indicate solitude, their name is actually due to the characteristic folds of its neck, which are reminiscent of Capuchin monks' robes. Mediterranean monk seals, considered as one of the most iconic species of the Mediterranean Sea, are shy, coastal animals that prefer  underwater caves and isolated beaches, where they give birth and nurse their pups. They can swim very long distances over a few weeks or months, and they can dive to depths of 170 metres in search of fish and, mainly, octopus, which is their favourite food. 

Protected by Poseidon and Apollo, Mediterranean monk seals – as we know from ancient records – used to live in large colonies along the entire Mediterranean. Unfortunately, this image is now rare, as there are only 600 individuals left in the whole world. 

© Chris Papadas / WWF Greece

Mediterranean monk seals are the only pinniped species that lives in Greece and the Mediterranean. Pinnipeds are fully adapted to life at sea. However, unlike cetaceans, they also spend time on land, especially to give birth and nurse their young.

The Mediterranean monk seal has become one of the rarest mammals in Europe. With fish having been drastically reduced in the sea, they are at risk from diminishing  food resources. Monk seals are often trapped in fishing gear, where they might be injured and/or killed, while especially pups, which have not yet learned how to swim well, may be fatally wounded by ghost nets that sink to the seabed. Like all marine mammals, they are at risk from pollution, disturbance by vessels, and the climate crisis. Just imagine what would happen if sea levels rose and the caves where they give birth and nurse their young disappear.

OUR WORK

On Gyaros, the former exile island, something uique has been happening since Homer’s time, and nature there has some incredible secrets. The most important may be the fact that it is home to 12% of the global Mediterranean seal population. Just like in Homer’s time, on this tiny and deserted island, monk seals sunbathe on the open beaches with their pups. For that reason, in 2011 Gyaros was designated as a Natura 2000 site, as part of the European network of protected areas, and fishing around the island was regulated in order to reduce the pressure on the animals from fishery activities.  

Such an important population with all these unique characteristics became the catalyst for us to try to utilise some  innovative and integrated protection measures. We rolled up our sleeves and brought together scientists, researchers and NGOs, fishermen, and central and local agencies of the Cyclades. Thus, after five years of hard work and many hours of  field work by expert scientists, dialogue with local communities, and intense meetings with relevant authorities and local  stakeholders and , we achieved something unique by Greek standards: Jointly designed integrated measures for the protection of the Mediterranean seal and all the natural wealth of the island, and agreed on a regulatory framework for human activities and for supporting the sustainable development in the wider region.

In 2019, the proposed measures were accepted by the Greek state, and Gyaros was established as a Marine Protected Area, the first such area in the Cyclades. We remain there and continue to work to ensure that the monk seals will continue to live on the island just as they did in Homer’s timeand that nature will be conserved undisturbed, . In partnership with the Coast Guard, we monitor the island to ensure the protection measures are observed and to avert any illegal activities in the marine protected area of Gyaros. We are determined to ensure this island remains a refuge of life for the Mediterranean monk seal and for nature. 

Monk seals are found to swim and hunt throughout Greece’s coastline, and that is why the pressure they face from fishery activities is intense. Thus, we are working jointly with the relevant authorities, scientists and fishers to collect data and jointly propose effective solutions to the State to reduce these conflicts and achieve harmonious coexistence of humans and nature. 

WHAT YOU CAN DO
  1. If you see a sick, injured or dead monk seal, please immediately contact MOm/Hellenic Society for the Study & Protection of the Monk Seal at +30.210 5222888. 
  2. If you happen to see a seal alive, please contact MOm/Hellenic Society for the Study & Protection of the Monk Seal at 210 5222888 or send an e-mail to  support@mom.gr to report the sighting. 

If you are one of the lucky ones and spot a marine mammal while you are at sea, click here for some useful tips.

Project leader: Spyros Kotomatas

The protection programme was funded by the Segre Foundation & Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.