My second Wild Wonders of Europe mission - Photographing one of the world’s rarest and most endangered mammals – the monk Seal. The location – Desertas Islands in the Madeira archipelago, Desertas means deserted in Portuguese, because that’s what they are, 3 Islands made of Rock that abruptly emerge from the sea up to almost 500m high, and one wooden house on the only flat area on it’s rough coastline.
This is where I will be living for 2 weeks with the team of 3 Park Rangers that are on one VERY important mission. Pedro, Martinho and Sérgio are their names and since 1988 others like them have been occupying this house every single day of the year 24 hours a day – protecting one of the Monk Seals last safe havens. And…it’s working - in 1988 the surviving population of a once abundant species was reduced to 6 to 8 animals that had fled from the main Island of Madeira and had found refuge in Desertas rough coast. Today the population is calculated to be of over 35 monk seals, and guess what? They are beginning to regain trust in us, and are starting to pop-up in Madeira Island.
THE ARRIVAL - Ahhh…what luxury and glamour the life of an International Wildlife Photographer. Carrying food for 4 people (for 15 days), Gasoline for the boat, Gas bottles for cooking, diving gear, diving tanks, Photo equipment etc… off the huge Navy Boat that gave us a ride, on to a 3m dingy, on to the rocky bay and up to the timber quarters I will be calling home for the next 2 weeks.
I was warned that for the first 2 days it would not be possible for us to go out to try to find the monk’s since the team had to take care of logistics first. So, on day 1 I climbed up to the top of this rock amongst the sea. In the horizon I could see the Island of Madeira, the Atlantic Sea and the Park Ranger´s Shelter down below. On the second day as uneasiness began to install I got in to the water and explored a bit of the marine life and the underwater scenery where I hopped to come face to face with the Monk Seal. Beautiful light, excellent visibility, warm water, a lot of fish, nudibranchs….and of courses no Monk Seal! I would have to wait for the Park Rangers to take me out to the breeding and resting caves where they are known to be.
On the third day at Desertas, we finally went out to try to find the Monk Seals. What an amazing coast, caves everywhere, many of which are invisible to an untrained eye, but Pedro points out several caves only accessible through underwater entrances where inside may rest a monk seal, however we do not stop, we head straight to the main resting “beach” (of rocks, of course). As we arrive my disappointment begins to take in, perfect conditions, full tide, sunshine, calm sea…and no monk seals.
Five minutes latter a large male puts his head out of the water 2m away from the boat and five meters further a smaller probing seal appears. I couldn’t believe my eyes, on my first trip out I was facing not one but two of the rarest mammals in the world, and despite there shy reputation they seemed very curios.
In despite of the effort I had put in to preparing this mission, reading articles, speaking with biologists…nothing could prepare me for the sight that awaited me in the water – a 3m long, over 300kg male lied inquisitively on the sandy bottom… he was the same size as the boat I had come on!!!
After a few minutes of observing their behaviour I could understand I was in the water with a male and a female. The body language seamed to me as if the female was curios and wanted to approach me but the male was a bit too curios and would always stay between us, maybe not to happy about a voyeur in the water as he was working on charming the female. As I started thinking perhaps it would be wise to exit the water and come back after the testosterone levels had dropped down (o.k. I was starting to think I really don’t want to impose on a 300kg animal with big teeth)… the strangest thing happened! The female approached me, stopped about 2m away, laid on the bottom as the male approached from behind – and they started mating!!! I stayed still as they gracefully swam together with their bodies entangled…then I left the water!
Nuno Sá / Wild Wonders of Europe
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