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Caribbean monk seal

Neomonachus tropicalis

Caribbean monk seals (Neomonachus tropicalis) were the only native seal species in the Caribbean. They were around six to eight feet in length and could weigh up to 400 to 500 pounds. Like other monk seals, they had a distinctly rounded face and broad muzzle. Caribbean monk seals had brown or grey skin, and would occasionally have a greenish tinge on their coat due to algae growth. Caribbean monk seals were extremely common animals, with groups of 40 to 100 animals being seen resting on beaches. 

They coexisted with humans for thousands of years but started being overhunted in the late 17th century, mainly being killed for oil by sugar plantation owners to fuel their lamps and machinery. They were also often overhunted for food. Their population started rapidly dwindling, and by 1952, the last confirmed sighting was a small colony of seals at the Seranilla Bank between Jamaica and Nicaragua. Caribbean monk seals may still survive in small numbers, as occasional sightings continue into the present day. 

One of the most intriguing recent reports was in I.L Boyd and M.P Stanfield's 1998 paper Circumstantial evidence for the presence of monk seals in the West Indies. In the paper, they interviewed nearly a hundred Haitian and Jamaican fishermen and showed them various photos and illustrations of marine life, both native and foreign, and asked them if they have seen them recently. Unsurprisingly, a vast majority of them were familiar with manatees and humpback whales, but 78% of them claimed to have seen a Caribbean monk seal, and 23% claimed to have seen at least one Caribbean monk seal in the past 1-2 years.

In 2018, wildlife biologist and explorer Forrest Galante had a sighting of a Caribbean monk seal on a remote and uncharted Bahamian island that was featured on season 2 episode 4 of his show, Extinct or Alive. While flying a drone mounted with a thermal camera across one of the islands, they recorded, for about two seconds, a large seal-like mammal with visible flippers swim towards the shore. As the animal spots the drone, however, it dives back under.

Some have theorized post-1952 Caribbean monk seal sightings are misidentified hooded seals, a species of earless seal native to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard. Though not native to the Caribbean, vagrant hooded seals have been known to occasionally be seen as far south as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. On the contrary, hooded seals have silvery coats with black spots, unlike Caribbean monk seals, which are entirely dark brown.

A Caribbean monk seal at the New York Aquarium (c. 1910)
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