22 May 2004
Clear Blue Horizon for Dimitris
Monk seal orphan sets out to re-discover his world
At 14.00 hrs on this bright sunny day in May, the world’s rarest orphan was lifted out of MOm’s mobile Intensive Care Unit by his nurses and veterinarians and nudged gently into his waiting transport cage. Once the protective towel had been removed from his head, Dimitris at last had a chance to see the well-wishers lining the route to the research vessel that would carry him out into the National Marine Park of Alonissos, Northern Sporades. Putting on a brave face for his big day, he took in the strange scene with whisker-twitching curiosity, betraying few signs of anxiety.
A local fisherman, a member of parliament for the region Mrs Zeta Makri a representative of corporate sponsor Pireus Bank Mrs Sofia Staikou the island’s mayor Mr Orestis Papachristou and the mayor of another important monk seal island Mr. Nikos Kanakis then lifted the transport cage and began the brief walk to MOm’s 13-meter research vessel, the ‘IFAW Odyssia’. In a highly symbolic gesture, the procession was led by the island’s priest.
“I cannot get over how things have changed,” said an elated Eleni Tounta, MOm’s Head of Alonissos Programme. “When we released our first orphaned pups we were virtually on our own. Now many people seem to be with us.”
Dimitris was discovered following a violent December storm, stranded on a deserted beach on the eastern Aegean island of Karpathos [see Monk Seal Orphan Rescued on Karpathos]. The local fisherman who found the exhausted infant quickly raised the alarm a testament, perhaps to changing attitudes in Greece, where fishermen have traditionally been hostile towards the species because of plummeting fish stocks and damaged nets. He spent the next 5 months in rehabilitation in MOm’s Intensive Care Unit, helped along the way by a host of institutional and individual supporters [see Monk Seal Pup on the Mend].
In the complex rehabilitation procedure, MOm worked with the Seal Rehabilitation and Research Centre (SRRC) of the Netherlands, the Veterinary School of Thessaloniki and the Virology Department of Erasmus University, Rotterdam.
In its post-release satellite tracking programme, MOm is collaborating with the Sea Mammal Research Unit of St. Andrews University in Scotland, one of the world’s most experienced institutions in marine mammal satellite tracking.
Providing much-needed financial assistance was the Piraeus Bank of Greece; Princess Catherine Aga Khan; the Marchig Animal Welfare Trust; members and supporters of MOm and readers of The Monachus Guardian [see Big Day for Dimitris, the World’s Rarest Seal].
Once the pup was safely on board, the crew of the Odyssia wasted little time in casting off, and sailing out of Steni Valla’s little bay.
Two hours later, they arrived off the coast of Gioura, an uninhabited island in the heart of the Marine Park. Dimitris, still in his transport cage, was then carried ashore to the pre-selected release site, a shingle beach in an open cave. At first, he seemed reluctant to leave the security of his cage, but was eventually coaxed out onto the beach by his carers. After a 10 minute spell, sniffing the unfamiliar scents of the shingle, he fell asleep, and dozed for the next half hour.
Then, at 17.52, approximately one hour after his arrival, he wriggled his way into the calm sea, and within moments was rediscovering the underwater world that had been lost to him after that fateful December storm chasing after fish, exploring the rocks where the Gioura cliffs plunge into the sea.
After nightfall it was left up to a satellite several hundred kilometres above the Earth to track Dimitris’ movements. So far, he has mostly stayed close to Gioura’s shores, despite a brief one mile foray in an easterly direction towards the monk seal colony on the core zone island of Piperi.
Why all this fuss and effort for a single seal? Because Dimitris is a Mediterranean monk seal, Europe’s most endangered marine mammal and the world’s rarest seal species. Losing the fight for survival against forces ranging from industrial overfishing to uncontrolled mass tourism, the species is also a powerful ecological symbol of the threats facing the entire Mediterranean ecosystem. The fate of one is inextricably linked to the other, a fact that thanks to Dimitris and others of his kind politicians, industry and fishermen are increasingly beginning to realise.
Flery Fotiadou, Public Awareness Activities Coordinator
Hellenic Society for the Study & Protection of the Monk Seal (MOm)
Tel: +30 21 5222888