Yulia, the rare monk seal captures the hearts of Israelis
By Rolene Marks
For several days, the most gorgeous blonde visited Israel’s beaches. With a sunny countenance, evident by her pretty smile she serenely lounged at the water’s edge, much to the absolute delight of curious onlookers.
A Mediterranean monk seal called Yulia, became Israel’s most watched – and loved celebrity. Named by a little boy who was the first to see her, Yulia enthralled Israelis and made global headlines when she visited Jaffa beach, close to Tel Aviv and for nearly a week frolicked in the Mediterranean Sea while spending a lot of time resting and sunbathing in full view of a delighted public.
Monk seals are one of the most endangered species in the world and it is believed that there are less than 700 of them in existence. Even more reason Israeli nature lovers were thrilled to see her!
Yulia could not have arrived at a better time. For months, Israeli society has been bitterly divided over proposed judicial overhauls and just days before Yulia’s arrival, was engaged in Operation Shield and Arrow to ongoing rocket attacks from terror entity, Islamic Jihad, in Gaza. Yulia brought much needed joy and unity.
Yulia was listless and shaking when she first arrived on Israeli shores, and conservationists and experts were worried that she may be ill. Marine biologists from the Delphis Association, an Israeli nonprofit for marine mammals, very carefully monitored her. Monk seals shed their coats, which is a process that takes a lot of energy; which could explain why she was so listless and was reported going for swims and back to her resting position on the beach.
Turkish researchers at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, received images of Yulia, and recognized her as a monk seal called Tugra (we prefer Yulia!) that they were familiar with, who was known for swimming great distances and napping for extraordinarily long stretches of time. She is reportedly over 20-years-old and is well travelled having being spotted close to Greece and Turkey. The Delphis Association and the IUCN have partnered for a joint project working to protect endangered monk seals.
Her arrival was just as exciting for marine biologists as it was for the throngs of people who came to greet her.
“On the one hand, I’m on such a high, I haven’t slept in days,” said Mia Elasar, founder of the Delphis Association, who has been researching monk seals for 30 years. “As a child I heard that there were once far more seals here; and now, to see one in real life, it’s a legend that has come alive.”
She was not the only one losing sleep over Yulia’s sudden appearance. “This is a very rare event that a monk seal stays for such a long time on the shore,” said Aviad Scheinin, a marine biologist from University of Haifa. “I’m researching marine mammals for 20 years; this is the first time that I’m actually seeing such a thing, and I can hardly sleep at night because of that,” he said.
Nature and Parks Authority inspectors spared no time in ensuring Yulia received the VIP care befitting a lady of her status; and secured a safe perimeter around her to keep the enthusiastic public away from getting too close to her and scaring her.
Volunteers kept a watchful eye 24/7 to ensure that she could rest undisturbed and Delphis carefully monitored her condition, which they sent to vets. They were joined by Israelis around the country who followed her in the various media. Yulia even made headlines around the world. From Ireland to China, the United States to the United Kingdom, everyone was on Yulia watch.
“Of course I know she’s not smiling, but her lips are formed in a way that makes her look like she is. She’s so utterly calm — even while a million people are watching her,” said Aya Zaken, a resident of Jaffa.
Zaken said that seeing Yulia for the first time was a “much more moving experience” than she had expected, Zaken said — partly because of the seal’s size but also because of the effect she had on onlookers.
“When faced with her, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm, like a deep meditation,” Zaken said. “The feeling that this is so much bigger than me or my troubles.” I felt that too, Aya. She crept into my heart as well – as she did for so many of us.
On Friday, Yulia reportedly dove back into the Mediterranean, leaving many feeling that her Israel excursion had finally ended.
She popped up a little later a few kilometres down south at Palmachim beach. She beat a hasty retreat into the water to avoid over-enthusiastic beach-goers. Who could blame her?!
As quietly as she arrived, she left, off on her next adventure. Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority reported that on midnight of Saturday night, she swam off and has not been seen since.
Yulia the monk seal captivated a nation. We fell in love with her. She brought with her some much-needed joy and a reminder of the importance of doing everything that we can to ensure endangered species are respected and given the space that they need to flourish. We hope she comes back to visit us soon – and brings some of her friends too! – and she did!!
*Yulia was spotted several days later back on the Israeli coast and is reported to still be here!
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