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Nuno Sá - Monk Seals, Portugal

October 17th, 2009 Posted in Southern Europe, Uncategorized

No Translations

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

Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.

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  1. 51 Responses to “Nuno Sá - Monk Seals, Portugal”

  2. By Fernando Romão on Oct 18, 2009

    Extraordinary experience! We, nature photographers, are so privileged.
    Superb photos Nuno.
    Best regards

  3. By Maria on Oct 19, 2009

    Estou tão orgulhosa… depois de tanto tempo no terreno podes finalmente mostrar o teu trabalho. As fotografias estão fantásticas e o texto relata bem a experiência única. Muitos parabéns,

  4. By Rui Ponte on Oct 19, 2009

    What a great pics!

    I’m waiting to see the complete work.

    Great job!

    Rui Ponte,

  5. By carolina on Oct 19, 2009

    São sem dúvida uma belas fotos! Muitos parabéns e obrigado por partilhares estas experiências com todos, serve nem que seja por breves instantes, mergulharmos também e vermos os sitios lindos que existem por aí…

  6. By Magnus Lundgren on Oct 19, 2009

    Hi Nuno / Magnus here!
    Great. The first one is my favourite, a rugged portrait. Did You photograph them mating…..?

  7. By Nuno Sá on Oct 19, 2009

    Hi Magnus,

    Yes…the more intimate ;-)photos of the Monk´s mating will be published soon on the on-line image galleries.

    How did the mission go on the fantastic Islands of the Azores? Hope the whales and dolphins didn´t miss the date.

    Best regards, Nuno.

  8. By rui soares on Oct 19, 2009

    excelente trabalho; é sem duvida a recompensa de todo investimento pessoal que tens dedicado, parabéns

  9. By Ricardo Wild on Oct 19, 2009

    Hi Nuno

    Great photos.Since childwood I dream about the Desertas and wonder what a paradise they must be. It’s great that a wild wonders mission has taken place there. And of course some very needed PR to our monk seal!!



  10. By Staffan Widstrand on Oct 19, 2009

    Some of the most beautiful seal pictures I have ever seen.
    And on top of that, they are of one of the most endangered and most difficult to find species on Earth!
    Truly amazing and a swell job done there Nuno!
    Really impressing!
    Double-page spread quality several of them!!


  11. By João Cosme on Oct 19, 2009

    Olá Nuno

    Estive a ver o Blog e gostei bastantye do teu trabalho, as Focas estão muita giras, parabéns. Abraço.

    João Cosme

  12. By Giulia on Oct 20, 2009

    thank you for this very interesting description. Mediterranean monk seal mating observations are extremely rare to find and I found your account most fascinating. At what water depth this this occur? At what distance from the caves? I suppose you have given recounts of this observation to the scientific staff working at the Reserve. If you do not have their contacts I will send them to you.thanks again

  13. By Isabel Anjos on Oct 20, 2009

    Muitos parabéns Nuno, valeu a pena o esforço e o trabalho. São experências únicas, e com as suas descrições ficamos com água na boca.
    Um beijo grande “sogrinha”

  14. By Salvador on Oct 20, 2009

    Impressionante, sem duvida um fotógrafo de mão cheia e com um brilhante futuro pela frente!

    Estou verdadeiramente orgulhoso. Grande abraço


  15. By Paulo Reis on Oct 20, 2009


    Como já é hábito teu……

    Sem palavras para descrever as fotos

    Um Abração

    Paulo Rita e Margarida

  16. By Nuno Sá on Oct 20, 2009

    Hi Giulia,

    Thank´s for your comments.

    The shots where taken at depths between 3 and 9 meters, 50 to 100m from one of the main resting beaches in Desertas “Calhau das Aareias”. Of course Madeira Natural Park has requested and been given access to the photos and will be using them foto Photo ID and behavior study.

    Thank´s Nuno.

  17. By António Torneio on Oct 20, 2009


    Muito bem conseguido, para além das fotografias que estão excelentes apreciei a descrição, devem ter sido dias dificeis mas muito ricos e compensadores.
    Deves te sentir contente.

    Regards with love

  18. By Catarina van Uden on Oct 21, 2009

    Gosto muito das fotografias, estão um espectáculo! Fico à espera de ver as outras.


  19. By Pedro on Oct 21, 2009

    Tanto as fotografias como a descrição desta incursão ás desertas estão 5 estrelas. Muitos parabéns. Um grande abraço Monkey.

  20. By Nicolau S. Lima on Oct 21, 2009

    Mais um grande registo!!! Parabéns pelo belo trabalho! É um previlégio ver o que tu viste!

  21. By Pedro Beltrao on Oct 22, 2009

    Boa Nuno! Não foi preciso só sorte mas principalmente profissionalismo. Fotografias lindas e arrepiantes. Gostei também do texto que está primorosamente escrito.
    Pedro Beltrão

  22. By Bridget Wijnberg on Oct 22, 2009


    Thank you Nuno!

  23. By Xuxu on Oct 22, 2009

    Que espectaculo, adorei. Deve ter sido fantastica a estadia nas desertas… quem me dera eheheh.

  24. By Angelina Pereira on Oct 22, 2009

    Olá Nuno!!
    è um previlégio poder assitir ao teu trabalho!
    Faço questão de partilhar com os meus amigos, as magníficas imagens que captaste…
    Angelina Pereira (Ericeira)

  25. By Rui Corrêa Henriques on Oct 22, 2009


    Grandes momentos! Grande experiência!
    I envy you my friend!!

    Muitos parabéns pelos continuos sucessos e um grande abraço,


  26. By piedade on Oct 22, 2009

    Olá Nuno
    São realmente maravilhosas….. E que aventuras….
    Gostava de saber como se consegue essa luminusidade debaixo de água.
    Parabéns pela coragem e persistência para conseguir tais imagens

  27. By Pedro on Oct 22, 2009

    Parabéns Nuno! Sinto-me orgulhoso por poder estar perto de alguém com tanto talento e sensibilidade. Consegues transmitir-nos os momentos únicos por que passaste. Grande abraço,
    Pedro Almeida

  28. By Francisca Villas on Oct 22, 2009

    Que espectáculo Nuno!!
    Muitos parabéns, as fotografias estão lindas..

    Bjs e continue td a correr lindamente!


  29. By Filipe Carneiro on Oct 23, 2009

    Que olhar maravilhoso é este do mundo a baixo da linha d’água que nos ofereces… muito obrigado pela tua dedicação e partilha. Quero ouvir mais histórias sobre peixes que te mordem os dedos e te mandam embora.
    Filipe Carneiro

  30. By Rui Farinha on Oct 23, 2009

    Parabéns !!!!!!

    Permita-me partilhar o orgulho “tuga” pela paixão, e profissionalismo da reportagem !!!!

  31. By Helder Segadães on Oct 23, 2009

    Fotografias geniais.

    Parabéns, e continuação de cada vez mais susessos, pois merece-os todos.


  32. By marcello on Oct 24, 2009

    Grazie Nuno,
    un altro grande contributo per la conoscenza della foca monaca,ancora più grande perchè viene da un luogo che stà dando tanto per la salvezza della foca monaca.Un grande ringraziamento anche a Rosa Pires per la sua passione.
    Grazie ancora…e a presto
    marcello ebau

  33. By Luis Ferreira on Oct 24, 2009

    Parabéns Nuno!
    Aqui está a prova viva do que valem os Fotógrafos Portugueses de Natureza.
    És um exemplo a seguir.
    Parabéns por todo o teu trabalho.

  34. By Manuel Serpa on Oct 24, 2009

    Olá Nuno. Excelentes fotos, parabéns.
    Um grande abraço Açoriano.

  35. By Maria on Oct 26, 2009

    Hi Nuno,
    Fantastic fotos and incredible experience.

  36. By Maria on Oct 26, 2009

    Hi Nuno,
    fantastic photographs and incredible experience.

  37. By Teresa Sequeira Mota on Oct 26, 2009

    Parabéns Nuno!!!
    As fotografias estão o máximo,grandes fotografias de um grande fotografo que nos deixa orgulhosos.Li o blog a correr mas vou ler tudo de novo com mais calma.Bjs

  38. By Filipe M. Porteiro on Oct 27, 2009

    Parabéns Nuno Sá. As fotos são muito bonitas e apelativas, e as focas monge são realmente fotogénicas.
    Obrigado por me dar a conhecer estas imagens.

  39. By Luis Quinta on Oct 27, 2009

    Parabens! o caminho está traçado. Portugal é bom! e também conseguimos fazer bem.
    Abraço Luis Quinta

  40. By Rosa Pires on Oct 28, 2009

    Parabéns Nuno! Um excelente contributo para a divulgação do nosso trabalho. Mesmo sem lá ir, apercebemo-nos do encanto das Ilhas Desertas e da magnificência destas focas.

  41. By Ricardo Rocha on Nov 3, 2009

    Olá Nuno,

    Parabéns pelas excelentes fotos e pela descrição da experiência! Estive nas Desertas ainda a semana passada e consegui algumas fotos de Lobos, entre elas a da primeira cria desta época.. será que é resultado do acasalamento que tiveste oportunidade de testemunhar?

    Aqui deixo o link para o meu blog onde podes espreitar a foto da cria - http://monachusphotography.blogspot.com/ =)

    Tenho mais algumas fotos em das desertas e de lobos em - http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/album.php?aid=124079&id=744305002 .

    Já agora, Parabéns pela bela fotos das Orcas e continua o bom trabalho.



  42. By Luis Dias on Nov 4, 2009

    As imagens dos Lobos estão muito boas!
    Continuação de bom trabalho. 1 abraço. Luis Dias

  43. By Ana Paula Cunha on Nov 6, 2009

    Bom dia
    Belas fotos!
    Além de mostrarem a beleza da natureza são um bom apoio ao bom trabalho feito na Madeira.
    O Coro infanto -juvenil Estrelas-do-Mar (que nascerá em Outubro de 2010, com base em Peniche) vai sensibilizar o seu público para a preservação da biodiversidade. Assim apoiará em permanência o lince-ibérico e a foca-monge. A Desertinha foi adoptada para ser a Embaixatriz das focas e a sua imagem fará parte da farda.

    Continuação de bom trabalho :-)

    Ana Paula Cunha
    Coro Estrelas-do-Mar
    Projecto No Reino do Dragão

    (The Sea-stars children’s choir, in Peniche, supports the sea-monk community of Madeira and adoted Desertinha as embassador)

  44. By François on Nov 8, 2009

    Fotografias extraodinarias. Mereceste sem duvida o privilegio desta aventura.
    Continua o bom trabalho. Parabéns.

  45. By M. on Nov 24, 2009

    Excelente trabalho… só gostava de saber quando podemos ver mais fotografias destes belissimos animais.

    Incrivel como muita gente desconhece que tais criaturas existam em águas portuguesas!

    Por isso considero missão cumprida, porque conseguiste dar a conhecer as maravilhas do nosso país.

    Mts parabéns,


  46. By João Nunes da Silva on Nov 27, 2009

    Parabéns pelas magníficas fotos das focas.Que sirva de lição para aqueles que ainda não se convenceram que em Portugal também existem excelentes fotógrafos de Natureza e que a nível editorial deviam apostar mais neles.

    Grande abraço

  47. By Dog G on Dec 4, 2009

    All these photos are beautiful but the first one is especially noteworthy… looking at it closely… there’s so much character - I almost feel like I met the monk seal in person.
    Amazing. Thank you.

  48. By Maria on Mar 12, 2010

    Hello Nuno, what wonderful photos of this endangered species habitat, where can I see more photos of the monk seals?

  49. By Nuno Sá on Mar 12, 2010

    Dear Maria,

    Thank you for your coments. You can see more pictures of this mission in the Portuguese Galleries at Wil Wonders main page.

    Best regards, Nuno.

  50. By Maria on Mar 12, 2010

    Wow Nuno,
    thank you so much. I specialy liked the mating pictures “This must be underwater love”, what a special moment this must have been.

  51. By Nuno Sá on Mar 12, 2010

    “Underwater love” indeed, for a moment there I felt like “three is a crowd”, specialy since the female couldn´t keep her eyes of me ;-)

  52. By Gualter on Nov 11, 2011

    Wonderful work and pictures. So pure and natural, wish I could enjoy that experience.

    I’d like to invite you to try out Albufeira coast!

    Hugs and keep your great job, which is fabulous

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