top of page


With the contribution of the Life financial instrument of the European Union



Myths relating to marine mammals have played a role in many civilizations in the world from antiquity to the present day. Greeks, Indians, Inuit, Chinese, Norwegians, Icelanders, and many other people who lived and still live near the sea coined myths, through which the admiration, kinship, respect, and awe man feels for animals is expressed.

In the texts of Homer, Herodotus, Plutarch, and other historians and poets of antiquity, we find stories of people who were saved by marine mammals (e.g. the story of Arion by Herodotus) or stories of people who became friends with marine mammals (like the story of a dolphin who loved the boy-poet Aeliano).

In other myths, the gods transformed into marine mammals, like Apollo (Greek mythology) who became a dolphin and Sedna (from Inuit mythology) who became a seal. Elsewhere we find ancient deities, such as Aphrodite, Poseidon (Greek mythology) and Atargatis (Syrian goddess of the sea) who were accompanied by dolphins and in other myths, marine mammals teach people to be modest (like the African legend of King Soulemani).

One of the best-known and oldest myths about marine mammals can be found in the Old Testament. This is the story of the prophet, Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale and, after three days of intense prayer to God, the whale allowed him to leave its belly.

Plenty of myths about marine mammals can also be found in contemporary literature. Herman Melville’s classic book, “Moby Dick”, describes the journey of an obsessed ship captain to find and kill a ferocious sperm whale named “Moby Dick.” Jules Verne’s “Dick Sand, A Captain at Fifteen” refers to a ship collision with a whale. After the ship’s crew is killed when their whale-hunting boat sinks, a fifteen-year-old child is left in charge of the ship. Alexander Papadiamantis’ “Lament of the Seal” refers to a seal’s lament when it discovers a small girl who had drowned in the sea.


Reports on marine mammals are present in many works of ancient writers such as Aristophanes, Homer, Plutarch, Strabo, Ovid, and many others. The first author in the world to give scientific accounts of the monk seal, dolphin, sperm whale, and porpoise was Aristotle in his “On Animal Histories.” In this work, Aristotle cites data on the biology and behavior of marine mammals and refers to the differences among the various species of marine mammals.

Long before Aristotle and before the invention of writing, man outlined the forms of marine mammals on rocks, walls, and ceramics. Some of the first examples of marine mammal representations are whale engravings on stones in northern Norway, estimated to be 9.000 years old. Whale representations in stone were also built by the Aboriginals (indigenous people of Australia). The most detailed and colorful artwork of marine mammals was created by the Minoan civilization (Crete 3000-1500 BC). Striped dolphins decorated the walls of houses at Akrotiri in Santorini and the Palace of Knossos in Crete.

Many ancient Greek and roman cities had currency that featured marine mammals, while the Minoans included the image of a whale in their hieroglyphic writing system.

Another famous representation is a 2.600 year-old ceramic piece from Italy. The icon depicts a mythological hero battling a sea monster. Two dolphins, an octopus, and a monk seal witness a battle.

One of the most striking examples of the importance of marine mammals in ancient society comes from recent excavations in Rhodes, where the skeleton of a seal, ritually buried next to humans, was unearthed. This discovery shows how dear seals were to people.


Basic Kit

Binoculars are the most useful piece of equipment to observe marine mammals. Using binoculars, we can see more detail of marine mammals without disturbing them.
The camera and video camera are also key aids that enable us to capture the animals and their habitats.

Animal autopsies

Many marine mammals are very difficult to reach and observe in their natural environment. This happens either because these animals live in very deep water or because they are rare, such as Cuvier’s beaked whales or the beaked whale, mesoplodontas. In such cases, we derive much information about their characteristics, form, and eating habits, from autopsies performed on stranded animals. We can also learn the cause of death in the animal and can therefore recommend ways to protect the species.

New Technologies & Marine Mammals

All of the above techniques, allow us to obtain information mainly on the physical characteristics of marine mammals, but not as much information about their behavior.

Scientists are able to overcome this obstacle by placing special transmitters on the animals’ backs that will give them information by satellite or cellular networks. With a transmitter, they can get information about diving depths, how much time the animals spend in the deep sea, at the surface, or on land, as well as swimming speeds.


Marine mammals have some distinctive color, scars, cuts, or parasites on the dorsal fin or body. Also, the dorsal fin may have a particular shape or size that distinguishes one individual from another (e.g. a very curved or triangular fin). These characteristics are permanent and indelible, so photography and analysis allows for the identification of each individual, and they are therefore recognizable even after long periods without a sighting.

The systematic photo identification of a population of marine mammals can provide unique information on the size and social structure of a group or whole population, the rate of increase or decrease of a population, distribution, links to specific individuals, movements and migrations, and changes in an individual over time.


Οι ανθρώπινες κοινωνίες, ειδικά στο παρελθόν, που δεν υπήρχαν τα τεχνολογικά μέσα και οι δυνατότητες στήριζαν ένα μεγάλο κομμάτι της προμήθειας πρώτων υλών στα θαλάσσια θηλαστικά. Για παράδειγμα, πριν από τη διάδοση της χρήσης του πετρελαίου και των παραγώγων του, το λίπος της φάλαινας και της φώκιας ήταν το βασικό καύσιμο για λάμπες και κεριά και ήταν η πρώτη ύλη για παρασκευή σαπουνιών, καλλυντικών και φαρμακευτικών προϊόντων. Οι Εσκιμώοι, κατάφεραν να επιζήσουν σε πολικές συνθήκες, έχοντας σαν κύρια ασχολία το κυνήγι της φώκιας και της φάλαινας, που τους εξασφάλιζαν τροφή (από το κρέας), καύσιμα (από το λίπος), ένδυση (από το δέρμα), εργαλεία και οικοδομικά υλικά (από τα κόκαλα και τις μπαλένες). Δυστυχώς, κατά τη διάρκεια του 19ου και 20ου αιώνα, ο άνθρωπος με τη χρήση εξελιγμένων τεχνολογικά μεθόδων μείωσε σε δραματικά επίπεδα τους πληθυσμούς των θαλάσσιων θηλαστικών σε όλο τον πλανήτη. Κάποια είδη εξαφανίστηκαν, καθώς κυνηγήθηκαν μέχρι πλήρους εξόντωσης.

Τις τελευταίες δεκαετίες γίνονται εκτεταμένες προσπάθειες, σε παγκόσμιο επίπεδο, να περιοριστεί η εκμετάλλευση των θαλάσσιων θηλαστικών από τον άνθρωπο και να διατηρηθούν οι φυσικοί πληθυσμοί των θαλάσσιων θηλαστικών. Πάραυτα, οι μέχρι τώρα προσπάθειες προστασίας δεν έχουν καταφέρει να ανατρέψουν τη δύσκολη κατάσταση στην οποία βρίσκονται τα θαλάσσια θηλαστικά και πολλά είδη απειλούνται με εξαφάνιση, άμεσα. Η υπεραλίευση, η θαλάσσια ρύπανση και η θαλάσσια ηχορύπανση είναι μερικές μόνο από τις νέες απειλές που αντιμετωπίζουν τα θαλάσσια θηλαστικά.


Overfishing and illegal fishing has greatly reduced fish populations in the seas. Humans and marine mammals compete for the same scarce food still available at sea. As a result, some marine mammals (seals, dolphins) cannot easily find fish to feed on and thereby destroy the nets of fishermen.

Because of these damages, a minority of fishermen perceives marine mammals as pests and unfortunately may harm them. In Greece, one of the main death causes for the adult monk sealsis deliberate killing.

Accidental Entaglement in Fishing Gear

One of the most important consequences of fisheries in marine mammals is that every year, thousands of them are accidentally entrapped in fishing nets and drown because they cannot reach the surface to breathe. Others are killed instantly by illegal fishing activities, such as the use of dynamite.

Some modern fishing techniques are terribly destructive. Every year, fishing with towed driftnets causes the deaths of 300.000 whales, porpoises, and dolphins worldwide. The purse seining (nets that encircle large schools of fish) is the greatest threat to the survival of many species).

Collisions with Ships

Collisions of marine mammals and large ships are common in areas like the Mediterranean Sea where both shipping and the abundance of marine mammals are very dense. These collisions often cause serious injury or death to marine mammals, especially large ones like the sperm whale and fin whale.

Sound Pollution

The last decades, man-made sounds are alarmingly increasing in the seas and oceans. Sound travels faster and further away in water than in air, thus noise pollution constitutes a great problem at seas. Some intense anthropogenic sounds, such as those produced from military sonars and seismic oil explorations pose as serious threats to marine mammals and may possibly cause injury or death.

Such an incident occurred on May 22, 1996 when a mass stranding of 20 Cuvier’s beaked whalestook place in the Gulf of Kyparissia and another 10 in the Ionian islands in October 1997. The strandings were caused by extremely loud sounds of low and medium frequency, generated by military sonar during NATO exercises that took place in the Ionian Sea during the same period.

Another serious threat is the noise produced by big ships travelling through areas important for cetaceans. This noise is constant on a 24-hour basis, both affecting and threatening marine mammals in various ways. One example is seen in sperm whales that seem to deafen to ship frequencies, so they do not perceive when a ship is approaching them until it is too late and a collision is unavoidable.

Marine Pollution

Another important threat is marine pollution.
Marine pollution from industrial waste, oil, and other chemicals or toxic waste has been proved to affect the immune system of marine mammals, making them more vulnerable to disease.

In many cases, marine mammals mistake litter and debris with food. The ingestion of solid waste (like plastic bags, textiles, wood) by marine mammals can clog their digestive system, causing injury or death.

Intensive & Unregulated Coastal Development

Constant human activity on the coast (tourism, ports, industries, roads, recreation) has the effect of disrupting marine mammals, causing them to leave their breeding sites and feeding grounds. When these animals are disturbed while nursing, it has been observed that nursing is interrupted and, in some cases, mothers may abandon their young. Abandonment may prove threatening not only for the lives of the young but also for the entire population of an endangered species.

For this reason, it is important to establish marine protected areas, areas that are an important habitat for marine mammals in which human activity is moderate and controlled. One such site in Greece is the National Marine Park of Alonnisos and the North Sporades. This area is a key refuge for Mediterranean monk seals and an important habitat for other marine mammals such as the common dolphin, striped dolphin and bottlenose dolphin.

Climate Change

The phenomenon of climate change, if it continues at the same rate, will have disastrous effects for some marine mammals. One of the biggest impacts of climate change is melting of ice in the polar regions, a phenomenon that will undoubtedly affect the lives of marine mammals on many levels.

For example, seals living at the poles would directly be threatened with extinction since the ice that protects the baby seals that live there, will melt. Baby seals need to spend a period of time on the ice so that they can build up their layers of blubber and molt (shed their newborn coat for a new one), things they will need to do before they can swim in the icy sea. If a pup enters the sea before it is ready, it will die from the cold.


For thousands of years humans have hunted marine mammals for their fur, skin, meat, and fat. Intensive hunting began in the last 300 years. This was aided by the construction of faster, larger, and safer ships and the design of more effective hunting tools.

Thus, the hunting of seals and whales became a major and lucrative business. The consequence of this development was the mass slaughter of fur seals in the 19th century and the extermination of 2.000.000 whales in the 20th century, in the southern hemisphere alone.

Relentless and merciless hunting reduced the population of many marine mammals to very low levels (such as the humpback whale and fin whales); and some other marine mammals have disappeared altogether, becoming extinct (such as the Caribbean monk seal and the Steller’s seacow).

Unfortunately, despite global efforts to limit or ban the hunting of marine mammals, countries like Japan, Canada, Norway, and Iceland, continue to hunt these animals.


One of the serious human related threats for marine mammals is their captivity. For hundreds of years, man has captured marine mammals and tried to “educate” them in order to use them for fun and entertainment. References date back to the 1st century A.D. when Roman guards captured an orca whale that had stranded on a beach. Other examples include Scandinavian rulers who captured polar bears in the Middle Ages and tamers in the 18th century who used seals in shows.

Unfortunately, the capture of marine mammals became more intense from roughly the 1930s onward, when the first dolphinarium was created in Florida in the USA. By the mid-1980s, dolphinariums and aquariums were built in many areas of North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia.

During the last century, marine mammals are also captured and used for military purposes. These animals are trained and allegedly used to detect enemy submarines or underwater mine placement. “Military” dolphins have been used, for example, in the Persian Gulf War by the US Navy.
In any case, capturing marine mammals leads to abnormal behaviors, causes intense stress and isolates them from their natural environment and social lives.
Greek, European and international legislation strictly prohibits the capture and trade of marine mammals (like all wild animals).

Exceptions to this are cases of animals that:

  • are in need of care (orphaned, injured, sick),

  • are in an emergency (due to widespread pollution or epidemics),

  • cannot be integrated into wild populations, as are animals that are born or come from a long stay in aquariums or dolphinariums,

  • due to anatomical problems or disabilities, cannot survive alone in the wild.

In these cases, animals should be kept in optimal conditions with proper veterinary care and in accordance with the standards and protocols in force and adopted by recognized international bodies, without ever become “products” of economic exploitation.


Of the 14 species of marine mammals that live permanently or occasionally in Greek Seas, almost all face threats to their survival. Most threatened with extinction are populations of common dolphinssperm whalesharbour porpoises and most importantly Mediterranean monk seals.
In accordance with international and Greek law, all endangered animals are protected from hunting, capture or detention, harassment, and commercial transaction, including products derived from the animals.

The European Union has contributed to the efforts for the protection of the marine mammals, both through legislation, but also by putting pressure on other countries whose policies are not so friendly toward marine mammals. One example is the pressure for countries that continue whaling (such as Japan, Norway, and Iceland). Also, the ban on products from seal species in European markets has been an effective effort to reduce the relentless seal-hunts in Canada.

Greek and international law also protect the habitats of endangered species. Under this law in our country, the National Marine Park of Alonnisos, North Sporades was founded in 1992. This Park is the only marine sanctuary in Greece that aims to protect marine mammals and is an important habitat for the monk seal.

Although there are efforts to create more marine reserves (in Kimolos, the Gulf of Corinth, Karpathos, etc.), in practice, marine mammals in Greek waters remain unprotected. Many of the dead marine mammals that drift onto the shore have died of anthropogenic causes.
In Greece, the important role for the protection of marine mammals is in the hands of environmental organizations like MOm/The Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk SealWWF-Greece, the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, and Tethys Institute (based in Italy).


  • Notify someone immediately if you see a marine mammal, alive or dead. Take pictures, note the color, size and other characteristics and immediately inform the nearest Coast Guard, MOm in the case of a seal (210 5222 888) or Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute if it is a cetacean (210 – 8960108).

  • Take care to keep the beaches and sea clean. Don’t forget that the survival of marine mammals
    depends directly on a clean environment.

  • Do not bother or touch marine mammals, because you can scare them or you could carry viruses
    that are dangerous to them. These animals are wild and you should treat them as such.

  • Do not eat or fish for smaller fish than the allowable size. Fish are disappearing from the seas and young fish should remain to grow and give birth to more fish.

  • Learn more about marine mammals. The more we know, the better we can protect them.

  • Talk to your family and friends about Greece’s marine mammals and the need for their protection.

  • Inform the local coast guard if you see a ship or boat polluting.

  • Become informed about the environmental issues in your area. Participate in clean-up efforts,
    recycling, or tree planting in your municipality or school.

  • Do not buy decorations or other products derived from marine species. It is better to buy synthetic imitations than the real thing.

  • Support the work of environmental organizations who work for the marine mammals of Greece, like MOm, WWF Greece, or Pelagos Institute.

How to help

The Thalassapedia site was designed by the environmental organizations, MOm/Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal and WWF Greece, in cooperation with the cetacean research institutes, Pelagos and Tethys.


18 Solomou Str., Athens 10682

bottom of page