Although I’ve lived on Zakynthos for 20 years, I’ve only encountered a Mediterranean monk seal up close twice. In my book Zakynthos, A Complete Guide with Walks, I mention potential ‘hotspots’ for viewing this charismatic and highly endangered animal – based on my own sightings and those of friends. Key locations include the Vassilikos Peninsula (Walks 1-3), the Marathia Headland (Walks 10-12) and viewpoints above some submerged sea caves along the west and north coasts (Walks 13-21). The dive companies on the island seem to regularly spot them, so diving might be one way of increasing your chances of seeing one.
I had my first encounter in 1998. I was on a tour boat giving information about sea turtles, and suddenly there was major commotion on the boat, with the crew rushing to look overboard. There was a two-metre-long animal splashing about in the cove off Mavratsis Beach. Like the crew, I was entranced, but the tourists turned to me and said “this is a seal; we are here to see sea turtles”! Dismayed, I told them that they were that they were extremely lucky to be seeing this seal – one of the top 10 most critically endangered animals in the world. Only 400 individuals exist, with the Zakynthos population comprising just 10-15. The species has been persecuted to near extinction by fisheries.
My second encounter was with a stranded juvenile less than 1 metre in length on Ksigia Beach in 2008. It had become accidentally separated from its mother. Together with a friend who is a vet, and under the telephone guidance of a MOm rep (www.mom.gr), we cleared the beach (on a Sunday afternoon in mid-summer!), and a national park guard remained on watch through the night – during which time the seal returned to the sea and hopefully was reunited with its mother.
If you are fortunate to spot a monk seal, enjoy the encounter, but please also record the approximate size, colouring and location of sighting (GPS if possible) and send this information to MOm.
Photograph credit: Fanis Nikoloudakis, owner of Diver’s Paradise, Zante Beach Hotel, Zakynthos