Keith Ronald

The helicopter did its dragonfly-like approach to the ancient wharf, probably a wharf that had seen Phoenician, Italian, Turkish, German, Lydian, and British ships disembark their armies, but never a dust-spinning-siesta-disturbing improbable machine of this da Vinci design. The one advantage in sending several hundred years’ dust into the previously blue sky was that the villagers presented themselves and commented on the "trellos" or "crazy" that emerged.

The questions we asked did not relieve their suspicions that the world must really be mad to come in such a machine and in the peak of heat (as high as 140º F in the sun), but the die was cast and curiosity brought them to the "trellos" and his diminutive pilot. This was Leros, this was 1971, and the hunt was on for Monachus using modern weapons of discovery.

Eight years before a subarctic biologist, "trellos" had walked on water delving into the then secrets of pagophilic seals… he was now in Greece on the island of Rhodes. A rusty Volkswagen cabriolet had dragged itself and us through the Valley of Butterflies (now better called the Valley of the Tourists — and thereby hangs the theme of extinction), over the top of the mountain. Here we took coffee with a solitary monk in an isolated monastery, who upon learning what I did for a living suddenly became inspired not with John the Divine and his Revelations experienced on nearby Patmos, but rather with his description of the water dog with whiskers, that lived on the beach at nearby Monolithos.

The scent became hot. This was real life, not like the stuffed monk seal and seal trap in the museum in Monaco and the rather dreadful harbour seal that gazed plaintively out of its 3rd floor prison, or the last captive monk seals, one in Lisbon, one in the old and crumbling Rhodes aquarium.

Monolithos was not to be visited for another two years, but the three days in Lindos led to an ever-expanding search for this monk-like seal. This initiated an attempt to help it overcome the human invasion of its lands — the beaches and coasts of first the Dodecanese and then later the wider Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the NW coast of Africa (a coast that soon took its toll of friends of Monachus by killing the investigators with a land mine).

The long 25 years of talking to fishermen, harbour masters, government officials, operators of isolated diesel electric plants on almost one hundred islands, and NGOs went by in a blur. Few were memorable, although the names of Yeroulanos, Morianos, Boutos, Zagorianos, Johnson, Lavigne, Duguy, Sevel in Istanbul, the deputy minister of environment in Ankara, the Turkish born Canadian Berkes and many, many others still bring back memories of frustrated cooperation on both sides. The French wife of the Nomarchis [regional governor] of the Dodecanese, jabbing the leader of the Junta with her handbag to remind him that the monk seal needed help — yes, there were some great moments.

Our odyssey moved from badly bent VW’s to International Conferences filled with great hope and extreme platitudes. Even archbishops pledged their allegiance to the cause, but nature and human development and greed moved on.

Newsletters became the new vehicle of communication, with at least 15 countries sending us reports (sadly almost all of decreasing or no longer viable populations).

Some, like the former Yugoslavia, generated enough interest for a flying visit and showed without doubt that the whole coastline was one for the seal. Unfortunately, the tourist destruction had preceded us. Later, of course, inhumanity moved from seal to human, and continues still.

We returned every year to Greece and Turkey. Over 17 years, using helicopters and a Samos-built caique, we visited every beach, cave, and high cliff offering isolation to the seal. These were plotted on charts that hopefully still exist in the map collections of universities and under old blankets in storerooms. This survey, which even included the work of two honeymooning research assistants who drove around the Mediterranean, led to a statement that in the Sporades, Cyclades, and Dodecanese and the nearby Turkish coasts there existed endangered birds (reported to the Smithsonian) and enough room for many thousand seals.

Why weren’t they there? The beaches were impregnable from land and the caves were usually unused. The answer can be clearly seen in Lindos where, after The National Geographic declared it one of the most beautiful places in the world, 10-15 busloads of tourists then arrived daily, proving they were right.

On the beaches where the seals once bred, people do.

The film Mediterraneo is a classic and shows the Greek passively overcoming the Italian invader. This is a very interesting visual document filmed on Kastellorizo, the easternmost island in the Aegean archipelago. In 1968 we landed a helicopter on the wavering dock of the island, and the occupants were so isolated and so poor we had to siphon jet fuel to take a boat to the cave of "Foca". This cave has a very low entrance which can only be entered when the sea is calm, and expands internally to make the Blue Grotto of Capri look like a small hovel. This was an important annual breeding site for Monachus.

Three years ago a return visit to Kastellorizo and a simple enquiry as to the cave’s status, immediately produced a large Grand Raid Mark III Zodiac, with an overpowered motor. In 20 minutes we had entered the grotto, now effectively rendered lifeless by the sign above its previously very well hidden entrance: "DO NOT ENTER. SEAL CAVE"!

We found no trace of Monachus and later, during a few hours of conversation, we heard of the daily income now derived from taking "visitors" to see the seal cave. Sadly, we also heard that no one had seen a seal there for 5 years.

Kastellorizo lies within 1.5 kilometres of Turkey and its once unpopulated coastline. In the last decade Kas and Kalkan and similar nearby small ports have become massive marinas, providing all those luxuries that boaters expect, including diesel-laden waters, roads cut where no roads could possibly exist, and income generating throngs of Turkish and foreign visitors. Turkey has risen as the new Tourist Colossus.

The home of Saint Nicholas [near Finike in the Turkish Mediterranean] is no longer isolated but swamped by boats and beach dwellers. The "Death Sea" where we once anchored with only one other boat to watch two seals haul out, now has cafés, tea houses, tourist huts and all of this without National Geographic saying it was the prettiest place in Turkey! The mountain Baba Dag and Strabo’s burning phoenix look down on summer chaos. Where once the seal hauled out we have another example of the bludgeoning effect of the human species, a geometric breeder in a linear natural resource world.

What else do we have to remember? Madeira — which will perhaps become like the circles in a pond from a thrown stone, radiating seals to Flores and other islands.

The discrete western Saharan colonies might also spread out and survive — to the Cape Verdes, for example, although coral reef specialists diving there have seen nothing so far. The problem is we know almost nothing about the species’ needs, either nutritionally, or its minimum interactive population size. Will the breeding behaviour be activated by a colony of 10 animals, 50 animals or will we need 100s to establish a surviving species? If the group size is inadequate, the species is lost. In 25 years of searching for this animal I have seen 7 free swimming individuals, and two of those at one time — surprisingly enough in the boat-choked harbour of Rhodes, and small boys were throwing broken Hellenistic stones at those.

Perhaps seeing the breeding herds of hundreds of thousands of harp seals on the ice floes has spoiled me. Can I still expect reproductive returns from a few Monachus?

This leads me to Antibes, and the proposal that called for monk seals to be live-captured in Mauritania/western Sahara and transported to an aquarium in southern France. This was blocked by hard-nosed science — and for good reason. We have no way of knowing if it would have produced a single pup. We do know that disturbing the largest remaining colony in the world could well have broken the bond that holds them in those wave washed caves, and broken the breeding cycle of one of our last hopes. Captive breeding has never been a substitute for proper protection of a natural colony and we saw no indication that France wanted to help the Islamic Republic of Mauritania develop a strong support program for the almost mythical Monachus.

Let us return to the present — what do we actually know from the work of French, Turkish, British, Greek, Spanish, German and Canadian research workers? Scientifically little. Politically, the Blue Plan, together with other efforts associated with UNEP’s Mediterranean Action Plan, has just degenerated into a somewhat off-colour joke. Research is sporadic, and what does exist has been mainly driven in recent years by the personal conservation interests of people like Hoffman, Mursaloglu, Harwood, Johnson, Lavigne, IMMA, IFAW and Sadruddin Aga Khan. Apart from some wall papering by the Council of Europe, IUCN and WWF — whose fingers seem to enter into every pie — and a few lay individuals who have great drive, intense interest but lack funding or coordination, there is very little else. Any thought that say, Syria, Lebanon and Israel might pull together to establish a survival and recolonisation plan for Monachus verges on the absurd.

If we look at the Hawaiian Islands chain, we can at least say that monk seals still survive there. Despite recent clashes between conservation and economic interests, the one thing that may save that species is that the USA is not at war with itself (or only in pre-election times, or over handguns). The seal is therefore in the territory of one country. Whether the U.S. will capitalise on this obvious advantage remains to be seen.

Finally, the example we all look to as being an indication of life after death — the Caribbean monk seal, officially declared extinct in 1996. Recent visits to its historical habitat in Cuba have not produced a single sighting since a vague one 16 years ago. Belize is scuba dived like a Swiss cheese, the Turks and Caicos face a similar tourist invasion, and the Virgin Islands have all lost their maidenheads to the casual boater.

It is almost impossible to escape the conclusion that we are now at the terminal point. There are no hidden populations of Monachus. What we see is what we’ve got — and frankly, it is not much. In twenty-five years of casual to intense investigations, I believe I can state one thing we have with absolute certainty: "Not one more Mediterranean or Caribbean monk seal than we had when I first met that monk in the monastery on Rhodes."

As for his Monolithos, from above it still presents a picture of sheer beauty, with a Süleyman-battered but spectacular crusader castle. The breeding islets of the highly endangered birds are still there, still unrecognized. Looking down to the beach several hundred metres below, we see the antennae of a tourist village built by a German group.

But not one living Monachus.

    Professor Keith ("trellos") Ronald, March 30th 2000


Copyright © 2000 Keith Ronald, The Monachus Guardian. All Rights Reserved