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Caribbean Monk Seals – Are They Really Extinct?
The story of the Caribbean monk seal is truly sad. It is also an integral part of one of the ugliest periods in human history. Before the 1490s, the Caribbean monk seal flourished throughout the Caribbean region. In fact, its range spilled into the Gulf of Mexico at least as far north as the coasts of Texas and Florida. It had no competition in its ecological zone as it was the only seal living in the entire region. Its only large predator was the shark. It was hunted and eaten seasonally by the native Taino, but not at a level that significantly affected their population numbers. However, life for the Caribbean monk seal changed dramatically with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the 1490s, which ushered in the “Colonial Age,” where the New World was conquered and colonized by waves of Europeans.
You see, the Caribbean monk seal had something that European colonists loved and loved bad: NAFIN. The Caribbean monk seal had blob coils around its neck and all over its body. Liquid oil can be easily processed from the lamp. This seal oil was used in light bulbs, for cooking, for sealing the bottom of ships, for drying leather, and for lubricating the machinery needed to process sugar cane into sugar. The first Caribbean monk seals to be killed by colonists were in 1494 when Christopher Columbus ordered his men to kill eight seals on an island in what is now the Dominican Republic – so the Dominican Republic is where it all started.
Sugar plantations were cash cows for those colonizing the Caribbean region of the New World (then called the West Indies), and the first were quickly established and already in business by the late 1490s. By the mid-1600s, sugar plantations sugar mills had become quite large and needed massive amounts of oil to lubricate the machinery. To get this oil, they would regularly send out a group of men at night to kill up to 100 seals while they rested peacefully on the beaches. The Caribbean monk seal was extremely docile, so they offered no resistance. The unabated slaughter of Caribbean monk seals continued until the 1800s. However, by the 1850s, the seal population had so depleted that there were not enough seals left to make commercial harvesting for oil possible. If all the killing had stopped completely in the 1850s, the species might have recovered even though its population had been depleted to less than 5-10% of the original population.
However, the killing of the few remaining seals continued. Some were killed for their meat and skins. Others were killed and collected by scientific expeditions as scientific studies were conducted very differently in those days. Others were collected by private collectors who were aware that the species was becoming increasingly rare. In fact, it was a very popular activity among the wealthy in those days to collect collections of rare and exotic specimens. In the late 1800s, there were no laws in place to protect a threatened or endangered species like we have today, and there were also no laws to protect its habitat, which was also being degraded.
The Caribbean monk seal apparently persisted into the 1900s, albeit in very low numbers. Sightings of this beautiful creature became increasingly rare. The last verified sighting of a Caribbean monk seal occurred in 1952 at a place called Seranilla Bank, located about halfway between Jamaica and the Yucatan Peninsula. It is important to specifically note the use of the phrase, “verified viewing.” A “verified view” is one that is confirmed by someone who is considered an expert in the field. However, in every decade since the 1950s, there have been many informal or “unverified” sightings of Caribbean monk seals. Remember this because it is very important to the question of whether this species is really extinct or not.
The Caribbean monk seal has officially been declared extinct. First, in 1996 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared it extinct in the “Red List of Threatened Animals” published annually. Second, in 2003, the US NOAA Fisheries Service placed a notice in the Federal Register letting people know that it was considering removing the Caribbean monk seal from the US Endangered Species List and to declare him missing. As procedure requires, they asked for public comment. In 2008, after reviewing various sources of evidence, the US government also declared the Caribbean monk seal extinct.
Now, does this mean that the Caribbean monk seal is truly extinct?
Is there any hope left of finding Caribbean monk seals alive and well in the wild? Well, yes, there is, and I’d like to explain why. Just because a species is officially declared extinct, it may not necessarily be true.
Sea otters provide a really good example of a marine mammal species that was thought by all experts to be extinct, but turned out not to be! Sea otters were hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 1700s and 1800s because they have the densest fur in the world. This was a highly desirable and highly profitable commodity in a world that consisted only of natural fiber clothing. So, as cute and wonderful as sea otters are, almost all of them were shot and collected for their fur. Even after they became very rare, if one was spotted, hunters would immediately track it down and hunt it down. After this attack, decades passed without a single verified sighting of a sea otter. In fact, it was well accepted in the scientific community that they were extinct
Then, one magical day, the expert notion of sea otter extinction was proven wrong. It happened when a retired gentleman was using his telescope to spot ships from his porch in rural and rugged Big Sur California. He looked at his scope and to his surprise, found a sea otter otter near the Bixby Bridge. He contacted Stanford University’s Hopkins Naval Station, but they didn’t believe him at first. In fact, no one believed him at first, but eventually he convinced them to come and see for themselves, and so the “unverified sighting” of a species thought to be extinct became a “verified sighting”. The story of the sea otter is one of the most heartwarming and inspiring conservation stories.
So, after several decades of all the experts believing that the sea otter was extinct, it was proven that this species had somehow managed to hang on by a thread and somehow went unnoticed for several decades. It’s really quite an amazing story when you think about it, and it could just as easily happen to the Caribbean monk seal if more people start watching and we get a little lucky. A small population of Caribbean monk seals may be hiding out there somewhere in the Caribbean. In fact, in 2009, the History Channel proposed that they have footage of one in the Intracoastal Waterway in South Florida – not everyone agreed as the video was a bit dark and fuzzy, but it’s an exciting opportunity to take into account and should encourage more. interest to see. Of course, if the Caribbean monk seal is re-discovered with incontrovertible documented evidence, it will make people around the world sing for joy.
What I think is also amazing about the sea otter story is that it proves that you don’t have to be a scientist or some kind of marine mammal expert to be the lucky person who rediscovers a species thought to be extinct. Literally, anyone could do this. You just have to have an open mind and start looking.
Subsistence fishermen, commercial fishermen, professional divers, recreational divers and others have all claimed to have seen seals in the Caribbean. Since the Caribbean monk seal is the only native seal in the area, chances are good if you see a seal in this region that you are looking at a Caribbean monk seal. However, I must add two important caveats. First, arctic hooded seals have been found on several occasions to have strayed as far south as the Caribbean. This has only happened in recent years and is still quite rare, but if you see a seal in the Caribbean, it is likely to be an Arctic hooded seal. Second, sea lions occasionally escape from captivity and end up wandering the Caribbean. If you see a seal in the Caribbean and it sounds like a dog barking, then it’s probably an escaped sea lion.
So if you like to vacation in Punta Cana, as many people do, or somewhere else in the Caribbean, and take a snorkeling or boat excursion, you should definitely keep your eyes open for seals. If you see one, don’t worry about identifying it at first. The most helpful thing you can do is grab your camera right away and take as many photos as possible from as many different angles as you can. Video would be even better. Once you have it documented, find out exactly where you are and contact the relevant agencies and send them copies of your documentation (don’t send them your only copy!). Next, follow up to make sure the right people see your documentation as things sometimes get inadvertently lost in the shuffle.
Since the mass slaughter of Caribbean monk seals began in the Dominican Republic, it would seem particularly appropriate if they were rediscovered somewhere in or near the Dominican Republic. However, I encourage you to try to get photos or video of any seal you see anywhere in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico, as it could very well be a Caribbean monk seal and you should try to document it if possible. If you could find one, you would leave the world with quite a legacy. Plus, the quest itself is pretty exciting!
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