The Mediterranean Monk seal is the only species of pinniped or seal that we see on our dolphin and whale watching tours in Madeira. In fact this species of Monk seal is the most endangered species of pinniped on the planet! It was hunted almost to extinction throughout it’s range until it was finally protected in the 1970’s. At that time there were only 6 Monk seals known to be living around the islands of Madeira.
Once hunting of the Monk seal was made illegal the next most important step in the recovery of their population was habitat protection. There are a series of islands to the east of Madeira known as the Desertas islands where no human habitation existed. The remaining Monk seals had taken refuge on these islands and steps were taken to declare the islands a marine wildlife refuge to protect this highly endangered population of Monk seals.
Today the Monk seal population around Madeira is still recovering. There are believed to be 36 individuals living in the Desertas islands which is a reasonable growth rate for a population that was so close to collapsing.
The current population estimate of the Monk seal is approximately 700. Their range is widely distributed and so scientists are unsure if cross breeding between all the populations is possible. There are Monk seals in the eastern Mediterranean near Greece and Turkey. The population in the Atlantic is spread out between Madeira and Cabo Blanco in Western Sahara and Mauritania.