Rockets Sent Israelis Running From the Beach. A Rare Seal Brought Them Back.
Yulia the endangered seal did not seem phased by the rockets from Gaza, let alone the missiles heading in the opposite direction.
About six feet long and two decades old, Yulia heaved herself last Friday onto a sandy beach in Jaffa, an ancient city immediately south of Tel Aviv. It was the fourth of five days of fighting between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
She promptly fell fast asleep.
Yulia was the definition of an incongruous sight. Two days earlier, air-raid sirens on the same shoreline had sent swimmers and sunbathers rushing to municipal bomb shelters. Now, an endangered Mediterranean monk seal — one of an estimated 700 in the world — had landed on an Israeli shore for the first known time since 2010.
“A miracle,” said Ruthy Yahel, a marine ecologist at Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority who helped watch over Yulia this week. “She knows no limits, no borders, no wars between the countries.”
Yulia stayed on the beach for days, sleeping obliviously through the announcement of a cease-fire. She did not react when crowds began to gather over the weekend to watch her as she snoozed. She appeared unbothered when a local boy christened her Yulia, and the name began to make headlines across the Israeli news media.
She focused instead on molting, her fur gradually changing hue from brown to gray. Occasionally, she rolled around on the sand. But mainly, she slumbered.
As her fame spread, Israel’s nature authority cordoned off the beach to prevent onlookers from disturbing her. Kan, the national broadcaster, trained a camera on her sleeping spot, providing a livestream online. She inspired memes on social media, with users joking that she might defeat the embattled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in an election.
In the span of a weekend, Israel’s national conversation turned in part from war to seals — providing one of the frequent instances of emotional whiplash that define daily life in Israel, where a decades-old conflict with the Palestinians, coupled with widening internal rifts, make for a turbulent existence. Domestic turmoil one week, deadly conflict the next — followed closely by the appearance of rare marine fauna.
“We’re all looking for a bit of sanity given all the craziness that’s been going on,” said Avi Blyer, 47, an animator who came to see the seal on Wednesday morning.
“She’s an ambassador of sanity,” Mr. Blyer added. “She represents something else.”
For conservation experts, Yulia’s arrival is also a small victory after a decades-long effort to revive a near-extinct species.
In the late 1800s, the Mediterranean monk seal population was in the thousands, experts say, but it dwindled to the low hundreds during the 20th century after hunters killed too many and human activity damaged the seals’ habitats. Over the past two decades, conservation teams, mainly in Greece and Turkey, have expanded coastal nature reserves, helping to boost seal numbers.
“It’s something we really need to celebrate,” Ms. Yahel, the marine ecologist, said
Like many travelers, Yulia stopped in Turkey before heading to Israel.
After Mia Elser, an Israeli seal expert, sent photos of Yulia to colleagues in Turkey, the Turks spotted a familiar and distinctive mark on her back — a scar they compare to a “tughra,” or the elaborate calligraphic signature of an Ottoman caliph.
The Turkish team realized the seal was one they had been tracking since the mid-2000s and that they have regularly spotted in caves near Mersin in southern Turkey — most recently in March. The seal was so familiar to Turkish marine experts that she has for years been known to them as Tugra (pronounced TUR-rah) — after the Turkish spelling of the calligraphic signature.
It’s a mystery why the seal swam more than 320 miles to Jaffa, but one theory is that the growing seal population has created more competition for food, pushing her further afield.
Yulia appears bolder than most of her species, the Turkish experts said — generally less frightened by human contact, and more prepared to swim long distances. In 2019, she was spotted in Lebanon.
“She’s a really particularly easygoing seal,” said Meltem Ok, a Turkish marine scientist who said she has been following Tugra/Yulia, since 2005. “She doesn’t really care about human presence.”
At one point last week, Yulia seemed so unbothered that Ms. Elser, the Israeli seal expert, worried she might be dead. To check she was still breathing, Ms. Elser crept slowly up to her in the darkness, watching carefully for signs of life. Suddenly, the seal’s nose twitched, and she opened a single eye.
“It was the only time one of us really got close to her,” said Ms. Elser, a researcher at the Delphis Association, an Israeli nonprofit organization that works to protect marine mammals.
For Israelis, news of the seal has provided a brief balm from a sequence of rolling crises — from a deep social rift over the government’s proposed changes to the judiciary, to last week’s war, and an insurgency in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. On a local level, it has briefly distracted from ethnic tensions in Jaffa, once a mainly Arab city where the remaining Arab residents often feel priced out by growing gentrification.
News about Yulia’s movements has dominated neighborhood social media groups for the past few days, said Deborah Danan, a Jaffa resident who runs one of those groups.
“It’s nice to be able to talk about where the seal is on the beach — rather than where the nearest bomb shelter is, or whether there’s a protest,” Ms. Danan said.
But on Wednesday, visitors were met with a disappointingly empty beach. Yulia had vanished into the sea, and it wasn’t clear whether she would return.
On Thursday, Yulia did make a couple aborted attempts to land on a more northerly beach, but each time seemed put off by the presence of dogs.
“I hope for this country that she comes back,” Ms. Danan said. “This country needs distraction.”
Myra Noveck and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.