Commentary: Whatever Happened to the Caribbean Monk Seal, Last Seen in the 1950s?

Caribbean Monk Seal in captivity. (Photo credit: New York Zoological Society)

Special to the State of the Territory News and VI Source:

Do you remember the Caribbean Monk Seal? Do you know what they are, or more accurately, what they were? Could you imagine seeing a seal lying on the beaches of Caribbean islands just as the locals and millions of tourists do?

How would you feel knowing that we, humans, played a major part in their extinction?

These wonders of the water were hunted for centuries by sharks in the Caribbean and by the worst predators known to man: man himself.

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From the coast of Mexico and Texas, and throughout the edges of the Caribbean Sea, monk seals once inhabited these waters and many other islands and cays that Caribbean islanders call home. Now that they have gone extinct, we are left to wonder what the Caribbean would be like if these majestic animals were still alive today.

In August 1494, the first sighting of the Caribbean monk seal (besides by the natives who populated the island at that time) was recorded by Christopher Columbus. He spotted the seals on his second voyage to the island of Alta Velo, located to the south of Hispaniola. Eight of Columbus’ men slaughtered seals at his command.

On June 21, 1513, Ponce de Leon discovered the Dry Tortugas, a small group of islands about 67 miles west of Key West, where he ordered his men to kill fourteen seals grazing on the sandy beach. The reasoning behind the killing of these animals is often pondered. Were these men hunting? Were they acting in defense?

Caribbean monk seals were known for being curious and unafraid of humans. This lack of flight instincts from humans caused the seals to be easy prey. Some might even say that these seals were often killed in cold blood, if such a description is applicable to animals, high intelligence or not. Researching this topic, I wondered what Columbus and his men were thinking.

To add some context, Caribbean monk seals were valuable because of their oils and their meat, which was used for food. The men would often hunt these curious mammals because they needed a rich food source after completing a long voyage.

One still wonders if the resources harvested were worth the extinction of such creatures.

Let’s take a walk through the past and imagine the Caribbean islands as a home for native seals. What a sight it would be to see a monk seal laid out on a Caribbean beach. Though we see these seals in our islands about as often as we see snow, there was a time when seals in our seas were just as common as iguanas on the land. Fisherman and sailors would spot these seals on many islands, even ones close to my own home, near islands such as Puerto Rico and those which comprise the U.S. Virgin Islands. Surely, many Caribbean inhabitants and visitors alike would have loved the chance to swim with these creatures on a blue water, tropical beach.

In the modern world, animals are put on display and usher in beautiful memories for us humans, but what are we giving them in return? What were these creatures to us before they were hunted by European settlers? Were the creatures hunted for their meat and oil just as the explorers who followed, and if they were, was it necessary for their survival?

Just like the numerous marine animals which have now gone extinct, with the monk seal, we can only ask “what if.” It has been only 11 years since the Caribbean Monk Seal was declared extinct, which makes us wonder what part we played in its extinction. The last seal recorded to be killed directly by humans was said to occur on the Pedro Cays in 1939, but it is possible that our negligence as it pertains to the environment served as a catalyst for the animal’s disappearance.

Of course, we as humans are curious and tend to have the need to understand the world around us and the mysteries which inhabit it. So, like any other creature that is an enigma to the human race, in addition to being hunted for their oils and meat, Caribbean Monk Seals were also captured and experimented on. These experiments undoubtedly played a part in shaping the seals’ further existence. Unlike some animals, these seals did not survive well in captivity. When captured and corralled into aquariums in different parts of the world, the seals would survive only a few years.

Humans hoped the seals would breed and continue this dying species, but within a few years, the seals these keepers tried to domesticate were dying. In addition, constant overfishing along the reefs and a lack of food put a strain on the Monk Seal population.

As in many other instances, be it with people, animals, traditions, etc, we tried to save something when it was already too late.

So, what can we learn from this? Since the Caribbean monk seal was declared extinct in 2008, there have been other animals around the world who have suffered or are about to suffer the same fate. The cycle will continue if we do not change the relationship we have between us and the rest of the animal kingdom. If it does not change, then we will be left to ask this question: Which animal is next?

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in the State of the Territory News on May 13. 

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