The monk seal was historically widespread throughout the coasts of the Mediterranean, the Marmara and the Black Sea, as well as the African coasts of the Atlantic (from Morocco southwards until Senegal), and  the Azores, Madeira, Canary and the Capo Verde islands. Hunting and overfishing have led to a drastic reduction of the monk seal’s distribution and abundance. Currently, the largest known subpopulation is located in the coastal regions of Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus; it comprises less than 500 individuals, approximately 250 of which are estimated to be adults. Outside the Mediterranean, the next largest subpopulation is distributed along the coasts of the Cabo Blanco peninsula (approximately 300 individuals), followed by the subpopulation concentrated along the coasts of Madeira (approximately 40 individuals). 

In recent years, the occurrence of repeated opportunistic observations and the results of monitoring activities have suggested an increase in presence throughout areas of the species’ former Mediterranean range, including the Pelagos Sanctuary (e.g. in Corsica, Sardinia, Tuscany and Liguria). Evidence of monk seal presence in some areas of the Pelagos Sanctuary has also been collected through non-invasive monitoring techniques (video monitoring of caves in the Tuscan Archipelago and traces of environmental DNA in the water column), suggesting the need to raise awareness on the species presence within the geographic extent of the Pelagos Sanctuary.

The texts of numerous literary genres written by authors from classical antiquity represent a reference point attesting the  historical distribution of several marine mammal species, amongst which the monk seal, in the region encompassed by the Pelagos Sanctuary. One peculiar account is that written by the philosopher and Roman writer, Claudio Aeliano in which he describes the hunting techniques that killer whales pursue to capture monk seals. Texts such as these demonstrate the significant mythological role that the marine biome and its species have played throughout Mediterranean history and they act as a reminder of the importance of safeguarding its inhabitants in present times. Large cetaceans, seals, and dolphins are carriers of a rich history that has been passed down through centuries: they are not only important for their ecological significance but also in their role as a legacy of Mediterranean cultural heritage value.

The monk seal is an endangered species. Its rarity and cryptic nature represents a challenge for monitoring and that is why every single observation is very valuable.  If you happen to encounter a monk seal in the Sanctuary, please let us know by filling out this online form.

Photos credits :
© Greg Lecoeur-Monk Seal Alliance 
© Marco Prete