A tale of two species


The Hawaiian monk seal is a distant relative of the now-extinct Caribbean monk seal.

Special to The Star
Published: Thursday, May 8, 2014 at 09:16 AM.

By Tom Baird


As you stroll along the beach on a sunny day watching the pelicans dive, the dolphins roll, and the shore birds feeding and scampering in the surf, do you ever consider what you don’t see, but should? What I mean are animals that should be here. You wouldn’t expect to see a polar bear ambling down the beach, or a scarlet macaw flying through the sea oats, but what about animals for which this was once their home? Where are they? Why aren’t they here? Where did they go?

One animal that I sometimes think about is the Monk Seal. It often surprises people to learn that the Gulf of Mexico once had seals. If you had strolled the beaches of St. George Island, St. Vincent, or Cape San Blas five hundred years ago, you would have likely encountered a group of Caribbean Monk Seals (Monachus tropicalis) pulled up onto the beach or seen them playing out beyond the surf. Columbus sighted them on his second voyage and they were noted by Ponce de Leon.

Spanish shipwreck survivors told of the Indians eating seals, which the Spaniards called sea wolves. In one of the most remarkable accounts of early ship wreck survival, The Memoir of d’Escalente Fontaneda, Fontaneda recounts how his ship was wrecked in the Florida Keys, how he was captured and traded from tribe to tribe, and his extensive journeys throughout what is now Florida. Fontaneda left us with a glimpse of the plants and animals that inhabited Florida before Spanish colonization, and it is one of the earliest source records of Florida. He noted that the Indians ate sea wolves, although not all. Evidently, they were reserved for only the principal persons, native societies having strong class distinctions. Fontaneda’s memoir was published in Spain in 1575 long after he had been rescued and taken to Spain. Recently, archaeologists studying the remains of a Tequesta village in downtown Miami found faunal remains of shark, sea turtle, conch, whelk, fish, deer and monk seal. The site dates from 600 A.D.

Skip ahead a couple of centuries and in Jeffery’s 1763 book, a Geographical Description of Florida, it is noted that the reefs “abounded with a great plenty of seal” and that they were common off Jamaica.Logs of Spanish sea captains note taking large numbers of sea turtles for provisions, as well as birds and sea wolves.

So where are the seals that were once so common? Unfortunately for the monk seal, the only seal native to the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, they were fairly docile. They could be easily approached and killed. So it’s the same old story, they were over hunted. Besides meat and hides, the seals were useful for oil. Plantation owners would send out hunting parties to kill seals for the oil in their blubber to lubricate plantation machinery and fuel lamps. There are accounts of slaughtering seals by the hundreds for lamp oil.

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