We had a surprise visitor to Gyatso after dinner last night: an endangered marine mammal rarely seen in the Aegean Sea. We had just returned from one of the local tavernas ashore: cuttlefish in wine sauce for David and a hearty vegetable soup for me. It was already dark, the only light coming from the street lamps on the quay where we were rafted off the British yacht, Stratagem. Luckily, I had only a sip of ouzo to drink before dinner with neighbors Sandra and Ray, or I might not have believed my eyes.
Back aboard Gyatso, David called out from the cockpit to let me know that he heard what he thought was a dolphin feeding in the small harbor of Loutra on the island of Kithnos, the westernmost of the Cyclades. We heard another puff of air coming from the other side of the harbor but couldn’t see what was making it. A few minutes later we could hear and see something surfacing several times beside the boat. My night vision had adjusted, but I was confused because the creature I saw at a distance was about the size of a dolphin but had a long, smooth back with no dorsal fin. We waited patiently, hearing a few more puffs in the distance and then all was quiet. Five minutes later, a large seal surfaced several times with big snorts right next to Gyatso. I could clearly make out the head, eyes and even the whiskers of what looked like a Mediterranean monk seal.
A search of the internet informed us that the monk seal is classified as a critically endangered species and that only 200-300 survive in Greece. Alteration of their native habitat, illegal poaching and pollution are among the reasons their populations have declined. According to NOAA Fisheries, it is considered “the rarest and most endangered of all pinnepeds.” The monk seal is now extinct in the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, places we visited in 2010.
Although they used to sun themselves on open beaches, they are quite shy of humans, and now tend to retreat to hidden caves that they enter by sea. We’re in an area where I imagine many such caves exist. Today I’ll go ashore to see if I can find out if there have been other sightings and whether there is a conservation group where we should send a report.
We’ve been waiting here for the last three days waiting for a weather window to approach the Corinth Canal. The NW wind and lumpy seas are starting to diminish, so it looks like we’ll get underway again early tomorrow (Sunday) morning.
With the sun shining again for the first time in several days, I feel a small sense of optimism that at least one of these endangered sea creatures is alive and well.