Less than a century ago, the Mediterranean Sea was the home of large populations of monk seals. They colonised the shores from Spain to Israel, and from the North of Italy to Libya.
Being very sociable animals, the Mediterranean monk seals, or Monachus monachus, used to gather in large colonies on any rocky point or sandy beach. These opportunistic carnivorous animals often targeted the nets of hard-working fishermen to get an easy meal. A little too often, as the seals were soon considered as pests, and their colonies were slowly decimated.
Today, the descendants have evolved into solitary and shy animals. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Mediterranean monk seal is one of the most endangered marine mammal on Earth.
Yet, most of the scientific research has taken place during the past 20 years, in Greece, mostly in the North of the Eagan Sea and in the Saronic Gulf.
The IUCN will act as project coordinator. The mission’s main objectives are to bring scientists and local actors (such as diving centres and skippers) together, and test cutting-edge methods and tools to observe and study monk seals in all of the Mediterranean Sea. Only then will we truly know the status of this legendary species.
Support to the IUCN and to various local actors
We know there still are specimens of monk seal in the Mediterranean. But what is the exact state of the species as a whole ?
Although numerous studies have been conducted these past 20 years, nobody is able to answer this question.
In some specific places in Greece, these solitary animals are regularly seen patrolling the waters. Sightings have also been reported in Italy, Croatia, Slovenia and Turkey. It’s not unlikely that the populations of Mediterranean monk seal have actually spread further than previously thought. In order to validate this theory, the crew of the Octopus Foundation will use the Ionian Islands to deploy and test various tools and methods aimed at gathering data. Custom-made autonomous cameras have been purchased and developed by the technical team. They will be installed in different caves that are regularly visited by monk seals, as confirmed by local Greek biologists.
Once validated, these tools will be replicated under the supervision of the IUCN, to be deployed in all of the Mediterranean basin.
Media for the public
In addition to the financial and logistical support, the Octopus Foundation will publish mainstream media to raise awareness on this emblematic and threatened animal. These media will also help to understand the seal’s behaviour, biology, the threats it is facing and what solutions can be developed to help its species thrive.
Follow the 2018 mission to the Ionian Islands through the OpenExplorer journal:
Autonomous cameras (fixed observations)
The Swiss army knife of cameras: a solar panel, a long-life battery, a GSM antenna for 3G/4G data, infrared lighting. All of these features are connected to a camera, in order to take pictures at preprogrammed regular intervals. These photos are then sent via a SIM card to a server programmed to compile them on a website.
These autonomous tools will allow biologists to observe the seals’ comings and goings to their safe place, where they head to rest, sleep and give birth. The aim is to gather data with as little human presence as possible.
If these cameras work properly, the scientists will be able to figure out if the seals follow a particular schedule, and if it evolves through the seasons. Indeed, the beta system will stay in place for up to one year.
Aerial drones (dynamic observations)
With the current improvement of Lithium-Ion battery technology, the “quadcopter” drones for the general public can now fly for almost 30 minutes. During this year’s mission, the drone pilots of the Octopus Foundation will focus on spotting swimming monk seals from the sky, and following them until the battery dries up. Before the first drone has to back to base to recharge, a second drone will take off to carry on the surveillance, and so on.
In 2017, while flying at several dozen meters above the surface of the sea, monk seals were spotted and filmed with this method. The electric drones have a serious advantage: the followed seals were completely unaware of our presence and not disturbed in any way in their daily activities.
Design and installation of a prototype of automatic surveillance system
In order to capture images of monk seals in their natural habitat, and collect various important scientific data (human pressure, number of boats, weather conditions), we designed a fully autonomous system.
The conception and installation are explained in this video:
Dynamic observation (drone)
In June of 2018, we witnessed several Mediterranean monk seals swimming in their natural environment, close to Fiskardo in Greece.
The footage of these two adults is being analysed by specialists, to understand their behaviour.
We were able to successfully test the use of two drones relaying each other during several hours, and the result is this incredible footage.
Underwater drone (Trident)
The Trident by OpenRov also accompanied us to Greece, alongside our DJI Mavic Pro. And it was an excellent idea, as the remotely operated submarine was particularly useful to check moorings in Fiskard’s port, to document a shipwreck 40m deep and to explore narrow submerged caves.
Have a look at what we found: