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.
The monk seals managed to hang on, but by the end of the 19th century, they were virtually extinct. Not just constant slaughter, but overfishing, which robbed them of their food source, put them on the brink. Nevertheless there were occasional sightings into the 20th century. Six seals were brought into Pensacola in 1915. In 1922, a seal was killed near Key West. There were sightings off the Texas coast in the 1920’s and 30’s. The last confirmed sighting of the Caribbean monk seal was in 1952 of a lone individual between Honduras and Jamaica. In 2008, after a five year survey, the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that the species is extinct.
So what did we lose with the demise of the Caribbean monk seal? The short answer is we don’t know. We do know that the losses of apex predators like the monk seal in other ecosystems causes a cascade of changes and that other species suffer. The diversity and richness of the system is altered. We don’t know what the Gulf was like when the monk seal had a role to play.
But we’re enlightened now; we wouldn’t let that sort of thing happen again you say. Let’s consider the Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus). It’s a pretty little shore bird that nests on sandy beaches along the Gulf coast. It nests on Cape San Blas and Florida Audubon monitors its nesting success. Surveys conducted in 2006 found only 220 pairs left, with 80% occurring in northwest Florida. The Snowy Plover is on the road to extinction not because of its valuable meat or oil, but because of human and dog recreation! Sure, coastal development has destroyed a lot of former habitat, but a quick, playful romp by Rover where he shouldn’t be can prevent a nesting pair of Plovers from raising a chick. A dog running through a colony of nesting seabirds can cause all the birds to panic, consequently leaving their eggs or chicks dangerously exposed to the hot sun. Not to mention the chicks killed by the dog for sport. Was it really worth it to let Rover run through the dunes off leash?
Well, goodbye Monk Seal, and farewell Passenger Pigeon, Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Carolina Parakeet, Pallid Beach Mouse, and all the other species we have wiped out in the last couple of centuries. Are Snowy Plovers next? Do we really want to walk the beaches and not see anything flying or swimming or walking except ourselves? We could be getting close.
Tom Baird has been a fisheries biologist, high school and community college teacher (oceanography and microbiology), director of a science and environmental center, teacher of science and principal in Pinellas County as well as an educational consultant. He retired from the Florida Department of Education and he and his wife divide their time between Tallahassee and Cape San Blas.