Monitoring Mediterranean Monk Seals: Greece, 2019

Latest update June 16, 2019 Started on June 12, 2019
sea

Marine biologists are unanimous: the Mediterranean monk seal is a highly threatened species, yet their numbers seems to be growing. The development of new tools may be useful to scientists that study this magnificent marine mammal.

June 12, 2019
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In The Field

The real adventure begins at last ! With the help of favorable winds, our faithful sailing boat took us in no time from Lefkas to our undisclosed destination in the Ionian Sea.


Unfortunately, we are not at liberty to indicate where the monk seals are. There is a real risk that with this information, tourist operators will begin sending too many boats with people eager to see the animals with their own eyes. The truth is that this threatened marine mammal has been hunted to the brink of extinction, and therefore is fearful of man’s presence. Too much hassle can cause many problems, such as mother’s abandoning their pups, animals panicking or simply leaving the zone, never to be seen again. It’s not a surprise that for the past decades, the remaining individuals have chosen secluded and hidden marine caves to rest and give birth. They certainly don’t enjoy all of this sudden attention.

That being said, there are currently sailing charters and tour operators that play a very important role in raising awareness about the monk seal’s dire situation. Even though the boats packed with snorkelers regularly come to this location, the owners ask the tourists not to approach the caves and stay in a well defined area for a short period of time. This ensures that the animals are not disturbed. We witnessed with our own eyes that with this sort of practice, the animals don’t seem to mind the presence of man. Hopefully, most of the tour operators will adopt these kinds of best practices, and not only with monk seals, but with all of the marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Let’s all fight for better touristic future, with less impacts on the places we love to visit !

Now, back to our expedition: we were lucky to experience calm weather for our first day on location. This allowed us to start installing the autonomous monitoring system. We also spotted our first monk seals, and there seems to be more individuals than last year at the same period. It all looks very promising for the next few days.

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After visiting the Ionian Dolphin Project in Vonitsa, the whole crew headed to Lefkas marina to prepare for the field mission ahead.


The whole day was dedicated to prepare and stock the 40 feet sailing boat, in order to welcome a crew of 7 with diving equipment, filming gear, water and food for several days.

We also spend several hours building the wood box where all of the electronic devices will spend the following months (or years?), hopefully sheltered by the scorching Greek summer sun and violent winter storms.

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For our first day in the field in Greece, we met with Joan Gonzalvo, Project manager and Science coordinator of the Ionian Dolphin Project (IDP)


This Greek NGO, based in the lovely and calm little town of Vonitsa, is our scientific partner for our 2019 Monachus monachus project.

Joan will be in charge of building, installing and supervising our third autonomous monitoring prototype. We were received in the IDP’s field station, where eco-volunteers come every summer (April to September) to help survey coastal dolphins and monk seals in the Inner Ionian Sea archipelago (more info here: http://ioniandolphinproject.org/ )

Starting from scratch, and with the help of our detailed manual, Joan managed to assemble the various components in order to test the fully functioning prototype.

The next step will be to install it on location !

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Preparation

For this new mission in the Ionian Sea, the Octopus Foundation took all the lessons learned during last year’s project (see: https://openexplorer.nationalgeographic.com/expedition/monksealgreece2018.) Working all winter in Lausanne, Switzerland, we greatly improved our autonomous and open-source prototype.


We also developed a strong partnership with the Ionian Dolphin Project, whose scientists have regularly been in contact with monk seals over the past decade.

Together, we decided to install our upgraded monitoring system on an isolated islet.

In 2018, our goal was to have a system running for 6 months. Encouraged by this success we chose new components in 2019 that should allow us to have a functioning system all year round. That’s the theory. We very well know that in practice, things don’t usually go as planned.

We’ll keep you updated all along our 2019 mission to Greece, on the tracks of the marvelous Mediterranean monk seal. Stay tuned !

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Expedition Background

The monk seal is an emblem of the Mediterranean Sea.


Hunted to the brink of extinction, these intelligent and sociable marine mammals are today getting a second breath. Their numbers seem to be growing, and individuals are once again seen in places where they were thought to have completely vanished.

The Octopus Foundation develops and tests new tools that could help scientist gather precious data on this elusive animal, still considered to be the most threatened marine mammal in the world (according to the IUCN's red list).

In the Ionian Sea, the crew will sail to remote places where monk seals are known to gather in calm months. The aim is to test and validate the use of cutting-edge open-source and affordable tools for the study of these animals.

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