23 May The Last Monk Seals…
Despite numerous warnings to preserve the monk seal species, populations of this wonderful mammal continues to decrease in numbers because threats of poaching, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat destruction, pollution, diseases and decreased food availability. The time is crucial to encourage and support people to protect the last living monk seals.
Living separated as far as possible from each other, the two last living monk seal species, Monachus monachus and Monachus schauinsland, from the Mediterranean sea and the Hawaiian islands respectively, are having difficulties finding a way to survive in their changing habitats. External cues such as human interference, pollution and habitat destruction drove the third Monk seal species, Monachus tropicalis from the Caribbean, to extinction. Today, it is unknown whether this species still roam the seas or is already extinct. In fact, the last living Monachus tropicalis was reported in 1952!
The monk seal belongs to the Phocidae family with the other true seals (e.g. Elephant Seal, Leopard Seal, Common seal, Gray Seal…). The Phocidae family is one of the three family composing the group pinnipedia (from latin pinna, wing or fin, and ped-, foot) or fin-footed mammals: Otariidae, Phocidae and Odobenidae.
The common ‘monk seal’ name derives from its round head covered with short hairs, giving it the appearance of a medieval friar. The name may also reflect the fact that the monk seal lives a more solitary existence, in comparison with other seals that live in large colonies. The pinnipedia (from Latin as feather or fin foot) monk seals (Monachus genera) seem to be the most primitive living members of the Family Phocidae, having separated from other true seals perhaps 15 million years ago. It can be easily differentiate from the other pinnipedia, Otariidae (sea lions and fur seals), which have ears and can walk, contrary to the monk seal. The Phocidae can also easily be distinguished from the other pinnipedia family, the Odobenidae, in which the walrus is the sole surviving member of this once diverse and widespread family. The walrus is an exclusive arctic species and possess longs tusks and great bulk (up to 2000kg!).
Monk seals feed on a variety of fish, cephalopods and crustaceans. They are able to dive 600 feet deep, and can stay under water for up to 20 minutes. They can live as long as 30 years. Currently, their exact role(s) within their marine ecosystems are poorly known because of the lack of studies carried out in regard to their population and behavior. It is proposed that they may serve to regulate fish and other animal populations in order to maintain equilibrium in the ecosystems. As all pinnipeds, the monk seal needs to come ashore to breed, give birth, and nurse their offspring. It is therefore crucial to preserve the wild shorelines and their habitats in order to protect the last living Monk seals and don’t interfere with their breeding behavior.
The monk seals are found in tropical and subtropical seas (Mediterranean sea and Hawaiian islands). Currently, these mammals are rarely seen. The Hawaiian monk seal population is estimated to about 1300 individuals (population is declining at a rate of 4 percent per year) in the biggest maritime reserve in the world (the protected maritime area of the main and northwestern Hawaiian islands). Less than 500 individuals of the Mediterranean monk seal are referenced mainly confined to two surviving populations (the eastern Mediterranean, and a small population in the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa). These small populations makes the Hawaiian monk seal an endangered species and the Mediterranean monk seal as the Europeans most endangered marine mammal and one of the 12 most endangered animals in the world (World Conservation Union, IUCN, 1984).
The Monk seal have a long evolutionary earth history from the coastal waters of the North Pacific to the Mediterranean sea, bypassing throughout the Caribbean islands. Its anthropologic life history is more present in the ancient culture of the Mediterranean sea than in the new world of the Pacific Islands. Representations of Monk seals are present in various legends and mythologies. In Greek mythology, the monk seal was protected by Poseidon and Apollo because he loves the sea and the sun. The monk seal has also been elevated as an ancient symbol of good fortune, and adorns the earliest minted coins, dating back to 500BC.
Despite numerous warnings to preserve the monk seal species, populations of this wonderful mammal continues to decrease in numbers because threats of poaching, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat destruction, pollution, diseases and decreased food availability. The time is crucial to encourage and support people to protect the last living monk seals. Decisions needs to be taken to better understand, protect and preserve the last populations of monk seals, in order to make these beautiful animals part of the human present and future history as a symbol of benevolence and good fortune, but also in the so fragile earth ecosystem which needs every part of its puzzle to find its equilibrium.
Text and Photography by Aldine Amiel
All photographs are of Monachus schauinsland (Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua in Hawaiian, that means ‘dog that runs in rough waters’).