Seal island

(Eftalou coast)

On New Years Eve I always think back to the nights I spent in Amsterdam when there were fireworks and lots of people on the streets celebrating. But there’s nothing better than to wake up on new years morning on this Greek island. On the last day of the old year the weather was beautiful, and so it was on January 1, 2011- clear with a bright blue sky and a warm sun shedding a light I wished could stay forever. All trace of summer heat waves long forgotten and thanks to a dose of flu, I did not have a champagne hangover.
Amongst all the dark news about political tension, tax assessments, trouble during New Years Eve and other cheerless messages there was one story which shone out like a ray of sunshine offering hope for the new year: researchers have found a new colony of seals, not hiding away in caves as is the usual case in southern Europe, but living openly on an island (kept secret). These carefree seals were found sunbathing as they once all did before they learned to be afraid of people. The scientists are very happy with this discovery.

I too was sunbathing in a chair on the January 1 and can imagine how those seals might feel on their remote (and secret) beach, lolling around on the warm sand enjoying the sun just like me and no doubt dreaming about a year with plenty of fish.

The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) is a threatened species that survives along some shores of the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and parts of Africa’s Atlantic coast. Altogether between four and six hundred are left of what was once an abundant species.

In Roman and medieval times they were hunted for their skins and fat (for lamp oil) but luckily not to the point of extinction. That happened in more modern times – they were so curious they were easy to hunt. So nowadays you seldom get a glimpse of them.

You occasionally do meet to people on this island who say they have come across one of these monk seals, or even bumped into one in the water, an encounter which I imagine might give anyone a bit of a fright.

Across from Lesvos in Turkey the little city of Foça was once a Greek settlement called Phokaia, named after the Greek word for seal. There are still some of these seals around there and Foca is now is the base for Turkey’s organization for the protection of the Mediterranean monk seal.

The seals used to be protected by Apollo and Poseidon, because they loved to sunbathe and swim and whenever you saw a seal it was supposed to bring you luck, but there’s not much chance of that today. So let’s look on the find of the unknown colony as a token of luck for the new year. Greece has well over six thousand islands, some 227 inhabited by people, and so the big mystery is: on which one are these seals hiding? I do not think it can be Lesvos, but might be near here because we are just across the water from Foca. So, if you do have the rare opportunity of seeing seals casually sunbathing on a remote island or a faraway beach around here – don’t say a word to anyone!

A HAPPY 2011!