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The Mediterranean monk seal

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The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) has the dubious distinction of being the most endangered European mammal – fewer than 600 survive, almost half of them here, the rest elsewhere in the Aegean or around islands off the coast of West Africa.

Females have one pup about every two years, which can live for 45 years, attaining 2m in length and over 200kg as adults. Formerly pups were reared in the open, but disturbance by man led to whelping seals retreating to isolated sea caves with partly submerged entrances. Without spending weeks on a local boat, your chances of seeing a seal are slim (marine-park cruises are far more likely to spot dolphins); if seals are spotted (usually dozing on the shore or swimming in the open sea), keep a deferential distance.

Monk seals can swim 200km a day in search of food – and compete with fishermen in the overfished Aegean, often destroying nets. Until recently fishermen routinely killed seals; this occasionally still happens, but the establishment of the National Marine Park of Alónissos-Northern Sporades has helped by banning September–November fishing northeast of Alónissos and prohibiting it altogether within 1.5 nautical miles of Pipéri. These measures have won local support through the efforts of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Monk Seal (mom.gr; see Patitíri and around), even among Sporadean fishermen, who realize that the restrictions should help restore local fish stocks. The society has reared several abandoned seal pups (bad weather often separates them from their mothers), subsequently released in the sea around Alónissos.

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