Skantzoura, which lies to the south of the group, together with its outlying rocks and islets, is one of the most important breeding habitats in the Aegean for the rare Au douin’s gull (distinguishable from the herring gull by its smaller size and thinner wings), as well as for Eleanora’s falcon. Near the summit of the central hill stand the large and evocative ruins of the abandoned monastery of the Annunciation, dating from the 18th century. In common with those on Kyra Panaghia, Gioura and Piperi, the monastery was a dependency of the Grand Lavra Monastery on Mount Athos.
The open waters around Skantzoura and Piperi are a good place to glimpse the graceful banking and swooping movements of the two kinds of shearwater which frequent the waters of the Park: the Mediterranean yelkouan shearwater, and the larger and less common Cory’s shear water, which has a wingspan of more than a metre, and is distinguished by a pure white underside with dark tail bar. There are also sightings of cetaceans in these waters: the Sperm whale, the Long-finned pilot whale, and very occasionally the Orca, or Killer whale (the largest species of the dolphin family): striped dolphin and common dolphin are also often seen.
THE MEDITERRANEAN MONK SEAL
There are probably less than 500 pairs of Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) surviving in the world today. Traditionally hunted for their skins and oil, and killed by fishermen who saw them as a competitor for fish stocks, their numbers have recently dwindled further as a result of disturbance and pollution resulting from the human presence along the coasts which the seals frequent. The heart of the problem is the vulnerability of the female when gestating and nursing her young. The reproduction cycle is slow and the female, if unnaturally disturbed, can easily abort. She normally gives birth to the single pup on a beach or in a cave, and will nurse it for as much as six weeks, living off accumulated fat and not fishing or eating during the entire period. After weaning, the pup may still stay with the mother for up to three years. With the arrival of industrial fishing and the increasing construction of the Mediterranean shore, the seal which once basked and even pupped on open beaches, has now been forced to take refuge in hidden and inaccessible caves. Occasionally, due to bad weather, a pup may become irretrievably separated from the mother. Three such cases have been found, nurtured at the Seal Rescue Centre in Steni Vala, and subsequently released into their natural environment. Their names were Theodoros, Stelios and Efstratia, and their individual characters as distinct as their names.
The seal is glimpsed basking in the Odyssey, and makes an occasional appearance on early Greek vases. Its was probably widely present in the whole of the Mediterranean and Black Sea littoral in Antiquity. Although it was more systematically hunted in Roman times and may have suffered a sharp decline in numbers as a result, the effect was never sufficient to endanger the survival of the species. Today, however, the seal is confined to two principal colonies: the northwest Aegean, and the Atlantic coast of Mauritania and Madeira. The mature animals may travel far in pursuit of food. They are very occasion ally sighted in the Dodecanese (Karpathos, Tilos and Rhodes ) and elsewhere in the Aegean.
During excavations in 1999 in the area of the Commercial Harbour of Rhodes , a grave dating from the 1st century bc was found containing the skeleton of a monk seal, buried with funerary honours in a family inhumation, together with the remains of humans, a dog and some small grave gifts—just as if the seal had been a family member. The remarkable finds are displayed in the Rhodes Aquarium Museum. Fascinating in what this tells us about attitudes to animals in Antiquity, it also underlines the intelligence and potential for sociability of the seal. Ironically its trusting nature has tended only to contribute to its extinction. It has left it barely surviving as one of the world’s rarest mammals.
Skantzoura Island is part of the Lesser Sporades Island Group, Greece.