The Endangered Monk Seals

Depictions of monk seals date back to ancient Greece, when monk seals lounged freely on the sandy beaches and rocky shores of the ocean, and were observed to be tame and even trusting around humans. This behavior made them especially susceptible to hunting. Now, monk seals are rarely seen resting on open beaches and instead choose to seek refuge in underwater caves and secluded areas away from dense human populations.

© Ocean Futures Society

Only two of the three monk seal species remain on Earth today: the Hawaiian monk seal and Mediterranean monk seal, both named for the short individual hairs on their heads and skin folds which resemble a monk’s cowl. The third, the Caribbean monk Seal is widely regarded as extinct. While the Hawaiian monk Seal is endangered with roughly 1,000 individual left, there remains only 600 Mediterranean monk seals – the world’s rarest seal.

With a slender and torpedo-like physique, strong hind flippers, large black eyes, and small, flat head, monk seals are ideally suited for hunting their equally agile prey in waters as deep as 900 feet. They mainly feed on fish, but they will also eat lobsters, octopus, and squid. While the populations of both species are slowly increasing, their growth projection in is still less than half of what it was originally. Major threats to the future of monk seals include habitat destruction from coastal development, direct human disturbances such as tourism, overfishing, and even active hunting for either their natural oils or because they are viewed as a nuisance and competition to the fishing industries. Sometimes accidental entanglements occur in the fishing nets. Pollution, marine debris, and disease also pose a risk to seals and the species that inhabit and share the marine environment.

The Hawaiian monk seal is the state mammal of Hawaii and the only seal native to the islands. In ancient times, they were called "llio holo I ka uaua" meaning, "dog that runs in rough water.” They haul out and breed on the volcanic rocks of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, although small populations live on the main islands as well. These “dogs” of the sea can live up to 30 years in their natural habitat.

Like their Hawaiian cousins, Mediterranean monk seals originally lounged on beaches and were considered an omen of good fortune. Their numbers fell dramatically during the Roman era and continue to fall today, likely due to hunting and increased seafaring, as well as increasing tourism, wars, and industrialism. A species that once spanned the entire Mediterranean region from the Atlantic coast of Senegal to Africa and as far east as the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Monk Seal is now restricted to two separate clusters: the Northeast Mediterranean and along the coast of northwest Africa.

© Tom Ordway, Ocean Futures Society

Research suggests they are very social in the water, but rarely venture onto the land in groups larger than three or four. The males are darker in color than their female counterparts, although both species possess a light colored stripe on their already lighter bellies. In general, they hunt at a depth of about 200 feet but have been seen as deep as 450 feet underwater, feeding mainly on fish, octupus, eels, and squid. While they can make great use of their speed while hunting, they also utilize bottom-feeding, overturning rocks in search of prey.

Both the Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals are critically endangered species and require continued efforts to help their populations grow. Plastic pollution is a major concern, particularly for Hawaiian monk seals as the Ocean Futures Society team observed, firsthand, a monk seal containing three and a half pounds of plastic in her stomach. Each person can make a difference by choosing to use less single-use plastic items like straws and plastic water bottles. As for the Mediterranean populations, they continue to face environmental issues including coastal urbanization, disturbances by boat traffic, pollution, and accidental entanglement in fishing gear. Most conservation efforts are focused on establishing marine protected areas, catching and releasing orphaned and wounded seals, and educating the public about their plight. Together, we can help bring this species back from the edge of extinction.