The monk seal is woven into the tapestry of human history. In ancient Greek culture, the monk seal—because of its love for the sea and the sun—was believed to be protected by Poseidon and Apollo. The image of a monk seal adorns the earliest of minted coins, dating back to 500 BC, thus elevating it as an ancient symbol of good fortune.
Regrettably, the cultural role of the monk seal changed as human history progressed. The trusting nature of monk seals made them susceptible to exploitation and they were realized as easy targets for hunters. During the Roman era, their numbers declined as they were widely sought for fur, meat, and oil. In 1494, Columbus—upon reaching the coast of Santa Domingo—promptly ordered the killing of eight seals for food, an event that sadly foreshadowed the European exploitation of the species in the years to come.
Monk seal populations inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands evaded recorded history until 1805 when the Russian explorer Captain Yuri Lisianski reported encountering them on the island that now bears his name. Unfortunately, the Hawaiian monk seals—like their Caribbean and Mediterranean relatives—also fell prey to the pressures of human disturbance and hunting.
The Hawaiian Monk Seal
Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi) inhabit the shores and waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Reefs, French Frigate Shoals, Nihoa Island, Necker Island, Lisianski Island, and Laysoan Island. Estimated to be between 1300 and 1400 individuals, the Hawaiian monk seal population is declining at a rate of 4 percent per year.
In a last-minute Executive Order in December 2000, President Clinton created the largest reserve in the United States, thus protecting over 70 percent of the United States' coral reefs while ensuring habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal. Covering 84 million acres of remote islands, atolls, reefs, and underwater habitat, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve now provides renewed hope for the future of the Hawaiian monk seal.
The Mediterranean Monk Seal
The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) has been reduced to two populations, one in the eastern Mediterranean and another off the western coast of Africa. Together, these populations number fewer than 550 individuals. This species continues to be threatened by poaching, habitat destruction, pollution, and decreased food availability.
The Caribbean Monk Seal
The Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis), declared extinct in 1996, once inhabited the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and the waters off the coast of northern South America. The Caribbean monk seal was last documented in 1952 at Seranilla Bank between Jamaica and Honduras.
Distribution and Evolution
The evolutionary history of the monk seal can be traced from the coastal waters of the North Pacific, to those of the Hawaiian Islands, Caribbean, and Mediterranean. Yet the monk seal's path in human history follows the opposite direction: from the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, to the New World and the islands of the Pacific. Perhaps the time has come for the paths of the monk seal and humans to progress in the same direction, a direction that would enable the monk seal to continue to be part of human history and reestablish itself as a symbol of benevolence and good fortune.