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Sea Wolves of Madeira

“I’m confused! My friends have been telling me this for years... I thought ‘Lobo Marinha’ translated as ‘sea wolf’. I was about to be enlightened! ” — David J Whyte


To set me straight, I met up with Rosa Pires and Nélio Caires, her Ranger sidekick at Calheta Marina as they returned from a visual check around Calheta. Rosa is a marine biologist who’s been on this particular case for 24 years, focusing on the preservation of the Monk Seal population of Madeira. She has, you could say, a zeal for seals and their protection!


I enjoy such meetings! I start off fairly ignorant and by the end, a little bit wiser and, more importantly, a convert to the cause! My initial mistake was thinking that these rare seals were some form of ‘sea lion’! Somebody definitely told me this during my early days on Madeira! And given that ‘Sea Wolf’ is the name of the Porto Santo ferry, not to mention the fishing village of Câmara de “Lobos", named after the colony of ‘Sea Wolves’ that once inhabited this sheltered cove, who could blame me? Rosa soon set me straight! The animal they were referring to is a ‘Monk Seal’, a seriously endangered species with only around 25 individuals in Madeira’s waters today.

A mother Monk Seal looks after her precious pup.

“But why were they referred to as ‘Sea Wolves?” I asked, determined to get to the bottom of this Monk Seal misnomer. “When the first explorers came to Madeira,” Rosa resumed, “they found an animal that made a sound like a wolf.” That’s where the ‘Lobos’ (Portuguese for wolf) connection came in. “And,” she went on, “when they were out of the water, their thick neck-folds looked like the hooded cassock of a monk.” I was beginning to get the picture! The final facet was that these bashful creatures favour the sanctuary of caves, similar to hermit monks of the past.


“Their closest living relatives today are bears, weasels, raccoons, skunks, and pandas”

Rosa continued, “to be genetically concise, the Monk Seal is a ‘true seal’ while the sea lion is essentially an otter. The overall category of these semi-aquatic animals is ‘pinniped’,” she said, “fin-footed mammals that include the walrus, sea lions and true seals such as the Monk Seal!” These animals were once land-based (ok, it was around 50 million years ago), and their closest living relatives today are bears, weasels, raccoons, skunks, and pandas. Isn’t it amazing how our natural world has evolved? “There are many different species of seals throughout the world,” Rosa went on, “but this is one of the rarest. There are only perhaps 700 Monk Seals worldwide ranging from the Mediterranean to Hawaii. The Caribbean branch of the family is now extinct.”


When Madeira was first explored and exploited, the hapless Monk Seal was hunted for its skin and fat. It is estimated that there were around 2,000 animals around the Madeiran islands in the 15th century. By the 20th, the species stood on the brink of extinction! “At the end of the 1980s,” Rosa told me, “There were only 6 - 8 surviving individuals living around Madeira’s coasts.” By the 1990s, a programme to protect the seals got underway, mainly around the Desertas Isles, 50 km southeast of the main island of Madeira which was designated as a ‘preserve’ to help protect and increase the population.


Part of the strategy was to set up a ‘Park Rangers’ programme under the Parque Natural da Madeira in 1988 and after its extinction under the Instituto des Florestas (IFCN) created in May 2016 to manage the landscape, forests, biodiversity, natural spaces and protected areas of the Madeira Archipelago. Today there are 35 rangers in all, three of the team at all times occupying a station that has been built on Grande Desertas Island. The Rangers monitor the animals and enforce the protected area. Visitors can visit for the day but it’s strictly monitored.


Working with the local fishermen is a key element of the Ranger’s role there. At one time the fisherman used gill nets and it was easy for the Monk Seals to get trapped in them. If they didn’t die, they would destroy the nets so it was an uneasy relationship between fisherman and seals. The rangers monitor the area for illegal fishing, talking with fishermen, explaining the need to create a reserve for the seals which would also increase the abundance of fish and would therefore benefit everyone.


I’ve been on a few dolphin & whale-watching tours in my time here and asked Rosa about the impact of mass tourism and how it might be affecting marine mammals. Every day from our balcony in Praia Formosa, I watch catamarans and other tourist vessels going round and round on their dolphin & whale spotting tours. “We work closely with these companies,” Nélio said. “The captains do a good job of making the public aware. They even stop to pick up plastic. Marine litter is a huge problem and unfortunately, the public doesn’t have a feeling about its dimension. Nowadays we’re eating fish with plastic inside them,” he added. Not a very pleasant thought!


“Can you go and see the Monk Seals anywhere,” I asked, naively thinking it would be a bit like a ‘seal safari’. “We never go near the seals and avoid any kind of contact,” Rosa said. “Our monitoring is done mostly via cameras that we place in the caves when the animals are away. In this way, we can keep an eye on them without any disturbance or contact.” And also with the help of the Madeirans who report monk seals sightings under the SOS Monk Seal network.

The entrances to the caves are mostly by underwater tunnels so the team approach, using sensors to check if there are any Monk seals present, and if not they set up the cameras. The cameras capture a photo once per hour. “Their colouring and scars identify the seals. The photos also give some insight into how long the seals stay in the cave to rest (at one point they recorded a monk seal resting for 18 hours)”


I asked if they ever found any hidden treasure in the caves. “The only treasure we find is the ‘shit’ of the seals!” she replied. “We take it back for analysis and it’s very useful to gauge the health of the animals and what they are eating.”


As for us tourists, how can we help the cause?

“It’s all about awareness,” Rosa told me. “Madeira offers a lot of opportunities to see marine wildlife. The impulse is to get close for the best images and views but if the wildlife is constantly disturbed, it will soon have an impact.” In New Zealand, with a long history of whale-watching, they saw the breeding rates reduced after some decades and have proven it was due to human pressure. “We don’t want the Monk seals to get close to people,” Rosa told me. “They could become partially domesticated. Soon, they will look for people and become dependent on such contact and can cause accidents with humans since interaction with the monk seals is mainly with the mouth.” In other words, they’ll bite you!


Regarding the dolphins and whales so abundant in the waters of Madeira, Rosa and the Ranger team recommend that only 10-minutes maximum contact with the pods of animals as is defined by law. “All the boats that have licences,” she said, “and it’s limited to 42 boats for whale and dolphin-watching in Madeira and Porto Santo. The licenses are distributed to different areas around the island. I suppose it helps but, like the seals, the other marine animals are in danger of becoming affected by our constant attention. I know it’s hard to change our behaviour but maybe we should before we change theirs!

David J. Whyte


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