Vol. 4 (1): May 2001


Luis Mariano González

I’m starting to write these lines sitting on the edge of a cliff, from where I can see a small group of seals playing placidly in the water below. I’m in the spot known as “Las Cuevecillas” in the legendary Mediterranean monk seal colony on the Cabo Blanco Peninsula. This remote and isolated location in Africa, where the sea and the Sahara desert merge, is the only place in the world where you can watch herds of monk seals and swim alongside them without their getting alarmed. Despite the ten years I have been coming to this spot, I still marvel at and enjoy this spectacle just as I did on the very first day. It is a paradise for those of us who work with monk seals. Nevertheless, it is a paradise with a dark side, as life here is hard, without Western comforts, and the desert, sea and surroundings are particularly dangerous.

As I reflect on all these years of work with the seals and, above all, on how far we have come, some recollections and impressions come to mind. Committing them to paper may, perhaps, help to save this species from its dismal destiny.

It is moving to recall my first sightings of monk seals around 1981 on the north African coast, the Chafarinas islands and Alhucemas. At that time, I used to cover the Spanish and Moroccan Mediterranean coastline, investigating the monk seal’s status in the region and logging the process of its extinction in Spain. I was fortunate enough to see the last remaining specimen in Spanish waters. After interviewing almost a thousand people who live from the sea, mostly fishermen, we got the impression that the monk seal was greatly hated and much persecuted, and that the public at large knew little about it and cared even less. We also confirmed that the scientific world had very little information on its biology. Shortly afterwards, with the aim of improving the conservation status of the species in the region, we started working with the surviving population on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, setting ourselves the dual aim of advancing knowledge of its biology and trying to change people’s hostile attitudes towards it. Although they helped somewhat, the publicity and awareness-raising campaigns did not manage to improve its status. And so, after several years, things were just as they had been at the beginning, and the species was going from bad to worse. Given the seals’ elusive behaviour and their low numbers, any chances of meeting our first objective were soon frustrated. Most sightings were sporadic and fleeting, and the information we did manage to obtain came from cases of seal deaths and from legends and stories.

Local fishermen pointed us in the direction of the large colony in the Sahara, insisting that there was nothing to be done in the Mediterranean. Although we had occasionally toyed with the idea, the news that had been reaching us from there since the seventies was worrying; the colony had been going through really bad times. The lack of protection on land was evidenced by the case of a Frenchman who boasted of having shot no less than twelve seals from the cliffs, and by the continued trade in pups that ended up in some godforsaken aquarium or circus. What’s more, the colony continued to suffer disturbance from tourists and the merely curious, who arrived frequently there from the nearby town of Nouadhibou.

The situation at sea was similar. Both deep-sea and inshore fishing were intensive and carried out abusively and uncontrollably, using all kinds of fishing gear. There was often news of accidents, with seals getting entangled in nets and lines.

When war hit the region at the beginning of the eighties, the situation changed radically. The colony and its terrestrial surroundings became inaccessible by land, fishing came to an almost complete standstill and, enjoying a period of calm and plentiful food, the seals slowly began to recover. After 1988, however, the flow of news from the colony was interrupted when the only research team able to reach it and occasionally report on its status, perished in a land mine explosion. That incident, bringing about the death of Didier Marchessaux and his colleagues, resulted in the entire area being put strictly off-limits. The entry ban was a cause for concern since no one was keeping an eye on the colony; nor was there any information about what was happening to it.

In May 1992, I finally made it to the Saharan colony. We managed to land and observe the first seals at the Cabo Blanco Peninsula. A large adult was resting, unconcerned, on one of the beaches below the cliffs. Then, in March 1993, we reached the cliffs of the breeding caves of “las Cuevecillas” to the north, and within the war zone. No one had been back there since the accident involving the French researchers. That day, the world of the monk seal changed radically for me. I do not remember the exact number of seals we saw that day, but there must have been over a hundred. Everything we set eyes on – the seals, the force of the waves breaking against the coast, the desert merging with the sea and the shapes of the imposing caves – made an impression on us. We could hardly believe what we were seeing, and of course none of us who were there on that memorable day was able to sleep that night. Past frustrations suddenly evaporated.

But it was not the paradise we had dreamed of. Although we had many seals in our sights – an idyllic vision for any “seal-watcher” – the barriers that had kept this colony “safe” soon started to present themselves to us. Some, such as the presence of mines left over from the war, were to be taken very seriously. Working in that area not only alarmed us, it also involved enormous restrictions on our movements and our capacity to explore. After several years we set up a base camp and managed to “clean up” a nearby strip of land located on the cliff top above the breeding caves to enable us to work; to go any further, however, is still too risky. News occasionally reaches us of fishermen who have seen a seal in a cave north of our camp (in fact, in the seventies and eighties, two caves were occupied by seals in that northern zone) and we have made exploratory expeditions. But the tension of walking several kilometres at an agonisingly slow pace, carefully placing one foot in front of the other in the tracks of a donkey specially kept for that purpose, leads to mental exhaustion, especially when we pass-by the graves of the French team and the remains of their four-wheel drive vehicle, or when we come across a mine. The tension is so unbearable that we seldom do it. The feeling of being trapped in such an “open” place as the desert is not at all a pleasant one.

The caves and the sea present other barriers. The seals pup and rear their young on beaches inside spectacular caves that have been gradually hollowed out by the sea. Not for nothing is the force and impressive height of the waves that pound the coast so well known among local people. Once we had overcome the most difficult part of getting to the colony, we then had to find out, from the cliff, what was going on inside the caves. After a lot of arduous work, we set up an observation post consisting of a climbing chair, known in jargon as a “guindola”, suspended from the cliff face opposite the cave. From there, the seated observer can see inside the adjacent caves without disturbing the seals. You can imagine how difficult it was to make observations in those conditions. We also decided to install remote-controlled cameras. One thing being theory and another practice, you can imagine the fuss we had to go through to set it all up. We finally managed it, although it took us almost a year. It was necessary to open up special paths on the cliff, insulate and prepare the cameras well, and find a special rustproof material for the anchoring equipment, similar to that used in ship building, and many other things besides. The experience brought home to me the importance of logistics as most of our time, effort and money went into it. In the end, on a memorable day in March 1994, comfortably seated in camp, we pressed the button on the monitor and, lo and behold, there were the seals, asleep on the beach and pups, playing before our very eyes. Handling the zoom and direction controls, we never tired of watching and recording them. We finally felt we were penetrating the secret and mysterious world of the monk seal.

In the years that followed, the camp witnessed intense and frenetic activity. We studied everything; as there was so little information available on the species to start with, working was a pleasure. Almost everything we studied yielded surprises and new data. Apart from being the first to witness a birth, we discovered, contrary to what had previously been thought, that males and females, both adults and pups, differ in their external appearance. We also ascertained the duration of sexual maturity and gestation in the species and discovered that mothers feed during lactation and that the young suckle from several mothers. And there were many other discoveries besides.

But this whole glorious period of a flood of discoveries was cut short with the now notorious mass die-off that ravaged the colony in 1997. In less than a month, a massive proliferation of toxin-producing microalgae killed off two thirds of the colony. The toxins probably reached the seals through the fish they ate. It went on for two long, hard months. Imagine what it is like to have to count, day after day, the corpses of the seals washed up in the caves and on the beaches – as many as one hundred and ten. Some of these individuals were well known to us as we had been observing them for years.

After the die-off things changed. With our rucksacks full of data on the species’ biology, we had met our goal of dispelling the scientific ignorance surrounding the monk seal. But, although hard to believe, the colony is currently in an even more dramatic and worrying predicament than it was before. With the return of peace to the region, fishing has slowly started to intensify and local people in Nouadhibou, which has grown spectacularly in recent years, are beginning to colonise what has, until now, been the seals’ own wild coast. In other words, the tranquillity and abundant food resources that once allowed the colony to recover are disappearing.

To make matters worse, the seal is also confronted now with enemies in its natural environment. Fishermen who come into contact with the seal will often try to kill the animal given the chance; most would probably be glad if it disappeared forever, and others are at best indifferent to its fate. The few friends that the seals do have are not generally local people – they are people like us, town- and city-dwellers. Those who encounter the seals on a daily basis, on the other hand, are unwilling to make sacrifices that would cut into their profits, such as giving up fishing in certain areas, abandoning the use of specific types of fishing gear or keeping their distance from the colony, all for the benefit of an animal they often regard as an annoying competitor. They have made their opinions abundantly clear to us.

So, with all this in mind, we set to work trying to find a solution that would ultimately assist both locals and seals. In so doing, perceptions of the species might begin to change for the better. One promising avenue is to associate the monk seal and its conservation with specific and tangible benefits, for example, by investing some conservation project funds in improving the poor living standards of artisanal fishermen and their families. In exchange for such support, the fishermen would agree to comply with certain ground rules, such as no-fishing exclusion zones around the colony, restrictions on the types of fishing gear deployed, and agreement to provide information on accidental entanglements etc.

The first phase of this social assistance programme is now already underway, and includes the provision of basic marine safety equipment for the fishermen’s boats, training them in safety at sea, and building a market where they can sell their catch in the city. These measures are, of course, accompanied by an environmental education and awareness-raising campaign that seeks to relate them to the world of the monk seal.

This new programme, devised and executed by the Fundación CBD-Hábitat, is sponsored by Spain’s Ministry of the Environment, the Fundació Territori i Paisatge and Euronatur. If all goes well, it may represent an important turning point in conservation strategies to save the monk seal.

I have the impression that the seals of Las Cuevecillas are starting to make more friends than before (interested parties, admittedly, but when all is said and done, still friends). More important still, they are also beginning to have fewer enemies. The colony may recover again, as happened during the war years, but this time because of a heartfelt change in people’s attitudes towards the species – a profound shift in opinion that is likely to prove far more enduring.

Luis Mariano González, April 2001


Copyright © 2001 Luis Mariano González, The Monachus Guardian. All Rights Reserved