When she was a child, Selin Özçelik would sit on her family’s balcony to watch seals frolicking in the bay of Foça, an ancient town on the Turkish Aegean coast.

A 28-year-old sailmaker Selin Özçelik says she hasn’t seen any seals since 2010. (Source: Selin Özçelik’s private album)

The Mediterranean monk seal is so enmeshed in the city’s history and culture that it has been adopted as its emblem. Özçelik’s grandfather used to regale her with stories of adventures with seals around the Sirens’ Rocks, a legendary site near Foca that featured in Homer’s Odyssey.

A Mediterranean monk seal

But now, most of them have disappeared.

“When I went sailing to the islands around Foça, we would come upon the seals, these magnificent animals of the sea,” said Özçelik, a 28-year-old sailmaker. “They used to salute us with their almond-shaped eyes when we sailed from a distance.”

“I am still at sea, sailing, but I have not seen them since 2010,” she added.

Foça, an ancient town founded centuries ago by the Ionians, is a scenic and increasingly popular tourist destination about 70 km north of İzmir. Its name is believed to be derived from the word “foka,” an ancient Greek descriptor of the seals that are indigenous to the region and who were believed to be under the protection of Poseidon, the god of the sea.

But the numbers of the endangered sea mammal have further declined in recent years as a result of illegal hunting, pollution and extensive traffic in the area, raising the prospect that they may disappear entirely from the Aegean coast.

Yalçın Savaş, an expert at AFAG, a Turkish research group that studies the Mediterranean seals, claims that only about 100 of them still live along the Turkish coastline. (Credit: Zeynep Yüncüler)

“If seals live in a place, this means that life continues as it should be in that place,” said Yalçın Savaş, an expert at AFAG, a Turkish research group that studies the Mediterranean seals and advocates for the protection of their habitat.

Savaş estimated the number of seals in Turkey at just over 100, though they are extinct in the Black Sea region and rarely seen in the Bosphorus strait or the Princes’ Islands off the coast of Istanbul. Some still live on the southwestern shores of the Sea of Marmara and its islands.

He blamed the presence of thermal power plants near the coast and uncontrolled tourism for damaging the seals’ habitat. In addition, though trawling is prohibited by law, it is often used to gather the sea cucumbers found in the area, damaging seagrass beds near the coast that provide a home for young seals.

Despite regulations prohibiting people from visiting the Sirens’ Rocks, many visitors to the city go there anyway to photograph the seals and end up scaring them away from their habitat.

Experts say that better coordination between environmentalists, local municipalities and central government is needed if rules are to be enforced to protect the animals from extinction. This is particularly important as tourism in Foça, with its picturesque scenery and environmental reserves, is expected to increase. They worry that their disappearance could have a broader impact on the local ecosystem and even threaten the livelihoods of local fishermen.

Nihat Dirim, a former mayor of Foca who spearheaded a campaign to save the seals in the 1990s. (Credit: Zeynep Yüncüler)

“The consciousness of fishermen for protecting seals has regressed,” said Nihat Dirim, a former mayor of the city who spearheaded a campaign to save the seals in the 1990s. “Cooperation and actions [to protect] seals have also regressed.”

Dirim worked with local authorities and the government in Ankara during his tenure to draft a pilot project to protect the seals, including defining areas where fishing nets were permitted and instituting regular boat patrols. The project attracted international attention, including from the World Wildlife Fund, and a team of Italian scientists helped set up a round-the-clock monitoring system to study seal behaviour.

But after Dirim left office, many of the projects fell by the wayside. A local committee that worked on seal-related projects was dissolved, enforcement of protection rules lagged and seal populations continued to decline.

Dirim now fears for the future of the seal population.

“No similar actions are taken now,” he said. “A local committee must be immediately formed in order to protect the seals which gave Foça its charm.”