The Mediterranean Monk Seal Is Making a Comeback | Science

The Mediterranean monk seal begins its life in a cave. Even after it grows to hunt and mate in open water, the seal sticks to its monkish ways. These retiring creatures—the only seal species in the Mediterranean region—are among the scarcest marine animals in the world, with a population around 800. About half can be found in Greek waters, where an island or inlet might be home to just a few monk seals.

Their ancestors were much more social. In The Odyssey, Homer described monk seals crowding together like a flock of sheep. The first-century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote that the seals could be trained “to salute the public with their voice and at the same time with bowing.” When the Alsatian naturalist Johann Hermann named the species “monk seal” in 1779, he was thinking less of the animal’s behavior than its appearance, noting, “Its smooth round head resembled a human head covered by a hood.”

After centuries of being hunted for fur and oil, monk seals grew both skittish and scarce. Until recently, the biggest threats were fishermen who saw the seals as competitors or nuisances. “They would go around the village saying, ‘I killed a seal today,’” says Dimitris Tsiakalos, coordinator for the nonprofit Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal, a nonprofit widely known as MOm, after the species’ Latin name, Monachus monachus. “This was something all fishermen used to do.”

Such routine killings have become far less common since the late 1980s, when MOm began its work. The group mounts cameras in caves where pups are born and records civilian sightings. When someone calls them to report an orphaned pup, MOm staff members arrive and take the pup to its rehabilitation center in Athens. After a few months of care, volunteers load pups onto boats and release them in remote locations, where the seals’ swimming and hunting instincts kick right in. By then, the pups weigh around 120 pounds or more, making them challenging to lift. “But they’re pretty cooperative,” Tsiakalos notes fondly. “They don’t try to bite you.”

In recent years, Mediterranean monk seals have rebounded sufficiently for the International Union for Conservation of Nature to bump up their status from “critically endangered” to “endangered.” They’re returning to places like Croatia and Albania, where they’d long been absent. On the Greek island of Samos, one seal called Argyro grew comfortable enough around people to recline on beach chairs and hang out at a café next to men playing backgammon. Argyro was shot in 2017, a sign that some still see seals as a nuisance. But her death sparked outrage throughout Greece, which shows how much the old attitudes have changed.

Tsiakalos was encouraged when MOm got a call from a fisherman who’d found a seal stranded by a storm and stayed up all night to keep it warm. “A fisherman!” Tsiakalos emphasizes. “There’s been a real shift in the mind-set. And that’s why seals are not so afraid of people anymore.”

Cover image of the Smithsonian Magazine April/May 2023 issue