An unexpected visitor spotted sunbathing on a beach in Tel Aviv is turning heads and causing a media buzz.
But it’s not American film director and Tel Aviv mainstay, Quentin Tarantino, or another Hollywood celebrity — it’s Yulia, an endangered Mediterranean monk seal.
The seal cow first appeared south of Tel Aviv’s main beachfront last Friday. On Tuesday, Yulia drew clusters of curious onlookers to the rocky beach south of Jaffa’s historic center.
These seals are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with as few as 350 mature specimens estimated to exist in the wild. Its populations have dwindled due to historic seal hunting, fishing, and habitat destruction.
Rarely spotted on Israel’s shores, the dwindling Mediterranean monk seal populations are believed to survive only in a handful of places in the Mediterranean Sea. According to marine protection groups, the endangered species only has about 600-700 individuals in existence in the Mediterranean Sea, Aegean Sea, and northeastern Atlantic Ocean.
Israel’s Nature and Park Authority has fenced off the section of beach where Yulia has come ashore to rest, and dispatched volunteers to monitor her from a distance.
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Still, her appearance is a sensation.
“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.
Yulia is molting, a multi-day process of shedding her winter coat, he explained, during which time she has been resting on the shore and taken occasional excursions out to sea.
Scheinin said fellow researchers from around the eastern Mediterranean have identified Yulia as previously spotted in Turkey and Lebanon in recent years. She is estimated to be around 20 years old.
“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.
The seal was first spotted on Friday by a person riding their bicycle.
“I was passing by while riding my bike, and I thought it was a dolphin,” said Avi Benson, who spotted the animal. “After I got closer I saw a seal coming in and out of the water. I thought it was injured until she got to the beach to rest. I called the police and from there they transferred me to the Nature and Parks Authority, who arrived quickly.”
Guy Levian, of the Nature and Parks Authority, said it was the first time a seal had been observed resting on the shore in Israel. In 2010, a seal was observed for the first time riding waves close to the beach in Herzliya, but it did not make landfall.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.