Wildlife Travel To Alonissos

The Sea Empress incident sealed its fate. With huge public concern and our opposition, BP dropped its plans. The Pembroke Power Station, unfortunately for its employees, was closed. But it was the right decision for the environment and for Wales and I remain proud of it.

Out fixer hadn’t turned up. Here we were, my wife and I, standing on the quay at the little harbour on Alonissos, the most easterly inhabited Greek island in the Northern Sporades. A sublime spot; the little town of Patitiri – the main town on the island – tumbling down the hillside in front of us framed with a scatter of pines and with the gentle splashes of the all-azure sea behind us.

Trouble was, we were the only passengers left standing there; everyone else had dispersed on foot, by taxi or with local relatives. We waited for Jimmy to turn up. And waited! ‘I will meet you from the Dolphin [the Aegean Flying Dolphins are the interisland fast ferries] at the harbour in Patitiri’ he had emailed just before we left the UK.

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I was here to talk to experts and islanders on Alonissos about one of the rarest sea mammals in the world, the Mediterranean Monk Seal. The US-based Zoogoer magazine wanted a feature about how it was faring and the measures being taken to try and bolster its flagging numbers. We were to be on Alonissos for a week. I needed local contacts and, back in the UK weeks before we left, I had help initially from Dimitris Skianis, a kind of one-man fixer who seemed to have the contacts on the island that I needed. He was arranging meetings with key local people for me. More recently, Jimmy had taken over his role (or so I thought). His not turning up on the quay made me wonder if anything else might unravel too.

So, after a long and isolated wait, we got a taxi and headed to the hotel his mother ran where we were staying. Jimmy had arranged that too. We could see the hotel name emblazoned across the building high above the harbour. It took a while before we raised anyone in the little hotel but relief was at hand. Jimmy’s mother knew about us, our room (rather basic and old fashioned but comfortable enough) was ready but Jimmy ‘must have got the day wrong’. Not an inspiring start.

The following day he turned up, full of apologies. My meetings had been arranged. All was good. I thanked him and asked about Dimitris, his predecessor. ‘Would we meet him too?’ I asked. ‘That’s me,’ he replied. ‘I am Dimitris Skianis but it’s easier for you, maybe, that I call myself Jimmy.’ Whatever.

The next day we were out in the Aegean with Vassilis Kouroutos, the Scientific Officer in charge of the National Marine Park of Alonissos, and some of his team, on the marine park’s boat. The park, designated primarily to protect the seals but including internationally important breeding birds too, covers a sea area of well over 2,000 km2 and includes seven islands – only the largest of which, Alonissos itself, is inhabited – plus a further 22 islets and rock outcrops.

It was a gorgeous, late summer day and we headed past the steep-sided, rocky islands of Peristera, then further out Panagia before turning east to the destination Vassilis was particularly keen to show me … the steep-sided island of Piperi around 40 km east of Alonissos – also uninhabited – its near-white limestone cliffs scattered with tall pines, some of them maybe a couple of hundred years old. A lot of the rest of the island is covered in evergreen shrubs. It was an idyllic place to anchor.

At around 4 km long and 1 km wide, Piperi is one of the smaller islands in the Aegean and its combination of limestone and seawater has been good for the Monk Seals. That’s because limestone is more easily eroded than some rocks, resulting in a plethora of deeply incised small coves and caves at sea level in which many of the seals give birth to their pups. Vassilis pulled the boat in close to the cliff base by a small sea cave. Far inside was a gently shelving shingle beach where, last autumn, two seal pups had been born. Many of the Monk Seals give birth in such places; others do so on remote shingle beaches in coves surrounded by inaccessible cliffs, not dissimilar to the breeding sites of Grey Seals in the UK (Chapter 9).

The Mediterranean Monk Seal – once abundant across a 6,000 km swathe of sea from the western North African coast, through the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea to the east – is now extremely difficult to find. Little wonder. There may be just 500 or so left, scattered over isolated stretches of coast and offshore islands. More than half of them survive here in Greek waters. ‘At this time of year, the seals are scattered well out to sea. They rarely come close to the islands so it’s difficult to find any’ Vassilis tells me as our boat bobs gently in the shallow water close to another of Piperi’s caves. ‘There may be no more than 20 seals in the whole of the park’s sea area at any one time and they often travel huge distances to feed.’

Piperi has arguably the best protected remaining Monk Seal breeding colony in the world. In recent years about eight pups have been reared here. A decade ago, an average of three were reared annually on Piperi. Because, he says, the seals are very sensitive to disturbance when they are breeding, Vassilis is convinced that the 5 km boat exclusion zone around the island has boosted their breeding success. We didn’t spot any Monk Seals that day; there were none around Piperi and none seemingly en route from Alonissos either. This was rapidly becoming one of those all too common needle-in-a-haystack searches.

We did, though, catch glimpses of Eleonora’s Falcons, their dark silhouettes against the bright sun-filled sky, as they scythed through the air above some of the islands we passed on our return trip back to Alonissos. We also noticed a solitary Audouin’s Gull, a large, smart gull with a black-tipped scarlet beak standing on a rock at the very edge of one of the uninhabited islands. Confined mainly to Mediterranean coasts, it’s an uncommon gull that rarely scavenges and relies on catching fish mostly at night. So its future is tied indissolubly to the future of fisheries in this very sea and the hope that the whole of the Mediterranean doesn’t become as over-exploited as many areas of it are at present.

If you’re lucky enough to spot one, Monk Seals look like big-eyed torpedoes. Males can reach 2.5 m in length and 300 kg in weight, making them one of the largest species of seal worldwide. Females are only slightly smaller. Adult males are black with a distinctive white belly patch; females are browner or greyer with a lighter belly patch. They can live for 20-30 years, sometimes longer. Clumsy and sluggish on shingle beaches, once in the water they are impressive swimmers that can easily out-dodge a shark. Pups, when they are born in the autumn, measure no more than1 m long and have dark woolly coats with a white belly patch. By the time they are two weeks old they are masterly swimmers but stormy seas before this can leave them extremely vulnerable to drowning in their caves. They are suckled for around six weeks, although the pup might stay close to its mother for as long as three years.

Monk Seals reproduce very slowly, an important factor slowing their recovery here. Adult females don’t have pups until they are over four years old; even then they might give birth to one pup in alternate years. Feeding mainly at night, they feast on spiny lobsters, eels, octopus and reef fishes and they can easily dive to 70 m, sometimes more. Not often seen, except by fishermen, they generally keep away from any human presence although in winter when there is less boat traffic, one sometimes turns up close to shore or even in an island harbour.

It wasn’t until a few days later, when we were out at sea again – this time closer to Alonissos near the uninhabited island of Panagia – that we spotted our quarry. At first, it wasn’t very obvious at all, an occasional rounded blob poking out of the water maybe 50 m from the island’s shore. But the blob was a head and, as we got our boatman to drift a little closer, the torpedo-like shape became obvious. A Monk Seal swimming nonchalantly in the shallows, diving now and again – sometimes for what seemed a minute or two – then bobbing up somewhere else in these waters brimming with fish and other sea life. A Monk Seal that could have no intimation that a whole marine park had been designated for it and its mates; a Monk Seal for whose future a huge number of marine and mammal experts, plus a load of concerned volunteers, were working in earnest. And a Monk Seal for which much of this care and concern was stirring up a great deal of angst in the community of fishermen in this part of the Mediterranean and probably much further afield too.

The marine park here was designated in 1992 though discussions about its need began in the 1970s and, in good Greek fashion, it was several years again before the government allocated any funding to give it some staff to implement any practical protection. It is divided into two zones. Zone B, a third of its area – including the main island Alonissos with 3,000 residents and about 10,000 tourists each year – has few restrictions. Oil tankers and hazardous cargo boats are banned and all boats have to keep under ten knots near parts of the coast so that they don’t disturb any breeding seals. Zone A, which includes Piperi, is more restrictive and larger in area. No scuba diving is allowed nor any spear-gun fishing. And fishing boats have restrictions on how close they may fish around islands. Pleasure and passenger boats are restricted to a few marked anchorages.

Drawing these lines on a map is the easy bit. Formulating the safeguards and measures needed to put the protection into practice is more challenging. Winning the hearts and minds of local people – particularly those that have fished these seas for generations – is very much more difficult to achieve. And on Alonissos, suspicions abound.

Jimmy arranged for me to meet Theodoros Malamatenias who represents the Fishermen’s Union of Alonissos. We talked over a drink at an outdoor cafe looking out over Alonissos from old Patitiri, the island’s original main village high above the sea, hit by an earthquake in 1965 but rebuilt. The incessant calls of cicadas from the cafe’s shade-bearing trees reverberated, metronome-like on the village’s stone walls as Jimmy doubled up as interpreter.

‘The Greek Government has imposed this designation on us, restricts our fishing but gives us no compensation, argues Malamatenias, a pleasant, middle-aged man with a typically large, black moustache and hands roughened by ropes and fish catches. ‘We have 60 boats on Alonissos, all family owned. We have fished the seas around these islands for many years, generations before us. This is our livelihood. Piperi used to be good fishing. They’ve stopped us going there but the marine park doesn’t give us any information to show if fish numbers have increased there. The marine park people don’t seem to want to work with us so we’re suspicious,’ he tells me.

These concerns are mirrored by Dimitris Christou, a younger man and another contact Jimmy has lined up for me to interview. Christou runs the Nautical Union of Alonissos in his spare time, a voluntary organisation promoting opportunities for sailing, canoeing, fishing and diving in an environmentally responsible way. ‘The marine park staff are new here. They’re not as friendly as people expected. There’s no joint working with them. I think they’ve got off to a bad start,’ he tells me in broken English. ‘I don’t agree that the seals are so easily disturbed; they come close to fishermen to take fish. People here want to visit Piperi but we are banned. We are local people and we would not cause any damage. We could go when the seals aren’t breeding. I’ve never been there in my life,’ he adds, frustrated.

It’s a concern I hear echoed by other tour boat operators. Ikos Travel, whose owner Pakis Athanassiou was involved in getting the marine park designated, and whose boat trips concentrate on wildlife and culture, thinks that some of the regulations are unnecessary. ‘It’s a big advantage having the marine park and it attracts a lot of people to Alonissos,’ he says. ‘But there are some silly restrictions such as no snorkelling or swimming except in two small bays around one of the islands where there are no seals breeding. Why so much restriction?’

Hearing this, I begin to wonder if these aren’t vested interests that would very much prefer to have no restrictions at all but yet they want the kudos value of the marine park because it attracts more wildlife tourists. So I ask Jimmy if he can fix up a meeting with the island’s mayor.

So one evening I met Panagiotis Vlaikos, the Mayor of Alonissos, a courteous man who was formerly a physics teacher at the island’s high school. We meet at a taverna on the harbour front – where else on a Greek island on a balmy summer’s evening? Mr Vlaikos, it turns out, has a more balanced attitude. Through Jimmy he explains that tourism is by far the most important component of the island’s economy. ‘The marine park is a benefit for the island. There is no point having such an area designated for conservation unless there are some restrictions. It wouldn’t make sense. And we have an international responsibility to protect our wildlife including the Monk Seal,’ he says over a drink or two. His views turn out to be as refreshing as the cold beers.

The answer to bridging the gaps between conservation and fishing, maybe tourism too, may lie in a project being run here partly with EU money by an NGO. They seem to be acting as an honest broker between all the parties with sectoral interests who clearly distrust each other. The Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal, happily abbreviated to Mom, has 7,500 members and was set up in 1988. It was instrumental in getting this marine park designated. But it also does seal monitoring, research and conservation education.

To talk about their work I arrange to meet Eleni Tounta who runs Mom on Alonissos. ‘Our project is trying to bring together fishermen and conservationists to reduce problems such as seals taking fish from nets. We are concentrating on seven hotspots across Greece including here at Alonissos, working with fishermen to look at the value of fish lost to seals and seeing if we can use deterrent devices on the nets so that they keep away. Seals sometimes get injured or killed by getting tangled in nets so this can benefit them too’ she tells me.

‘We have good relations with most fishermen. There’s no evidence of seals being killed here although there are reports every year of some being killed in other Greek waters. We want to see this marine park extended to include part of Skopelos [the island immediately west of Alonissos] and other sea areas protected, particularly Kimolos Island in the Cyclades and Karpathos in the Dodecanese,’ Eleni says.

Fishermen and Monk Seals (seals of all species anywhere perhaps) have not always been in such competition. In Ancient Greece, Monk Seals were venerated because they showed a great love for both the sea and sun, ironically two of the main reasons tourists flock to the Mediterranean today. To fishermen and seafarers they were an omen of good fortune. Ancient drinking vessels like water jugs sometimes bore their images and the seals were immortalised in the writings of Homer, Plutarch and Aristotle.

The Romans changed all that and by the Middle Ages many populations had probably already died out. Naturally confiding, Monk Seals were easy to kill using clubs, spears and nets for their meat, fur for warmth, skins for shoes and clothing, and their fat for making candles. But the human population at the time was small so it’s probable that seal numbers held up reasonably well until the last century or two. Pollution, two world wars, increasing industrialisation of fishing and, since the 1970s, the enormous boom in tourism, have all depleted their numbers further. Today, a whole host of threats are arraigned against these exquisite mammals: coastal developments, especially for tourism, have destroyed their habitat and breeding sites; increased pleasure boating causes disturbance; deliberate killing by fishermen and entanglement in their nets has had a direct impact; a decline of fish and shellfish caused by pollution and over-fishing; and occasional disease outbreaks are the main offenders.

About 140 million people now live along the Mediterranean’s 45,000 km of coast, a population that is more than doubled by summer tourists. And the numbers of both continue to grow, especially in some of the North African countries along its south coast. Raw sewage; oil from tankers, other ships and from leaks onshore; plus runoff of agricultural fertilisers constantly pollute this almost entirely landlocked sea which, as a result, has very restricted mixing of its waters. There has long been plenty of talk about clean-ups but little happens. Covering only 1% of our planet’s sea area, the Mediterranean is home to 6% of all our marine species. But many fish and shellfish are in decline, maybe other wildlife too, though as yet there is no evidence of any food shortages for Monk Seals.

Something that became obvious from this visit is that, if Monk Seals are to prosper, this marine park needs to generate a continuous dialogue with local interests to try and eliminate their fears and garner their support. And other sea areas need to be designated and managed appropriately by other Mediterranean countries in cooperation with local fishermen to provide it with more comprehensive protection. I consulted an international expert on Monk Seals to get an overview of how the future looks for Monk Seals; Dr Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, a Sicilian international sea mammal expert, was non-committal about this fabulous mammal’s chances of survival long term. ‘Greece hosts the world’s largest amount of Monk Seal habitat and the greatest number of animals. Its survival will largely depend on the capability of Greece to protect the Monk Seal in its waters,’ he tells me.

Leaving Alonissos was a wrench because it is such an attractive island, much of it unused and left wild, its tourism fairly low key, at least at present. But there was one thing I had forgotten to try and find out: how did the Mediterranean Monk Seal get its name? Is it because many of the islands in the Aegean had monasteries? Even today, one of the islands next to Alonissos still has a single monk as its only inhabitant. Or is it because the smooth, dark brown coat of an adult seal is said to resemble the robe of a Franciscan friar? Or maybe the explanation lies in the fact that Monk Seals never live in groups, leading what is, for seals, a pretty solitary existence. Maybe that’s why we saw just one of their number fishing on its own.

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