FEATURE by Willard Manus

It is an unlikely sight: a helicopter suddenly descending in a crescendo of noise and dust on a cow pastrure outside the tiny, white village of Olymbos, Karpathos--an island settlement so remote that its inhabitants still wear the traditional embroidered clothes of ancient Greece.

Equally unlikely is the burly, graying Canadian who leaps out of the chopper and rushes down in the 105-degree heat to begin talking to the fishermen about seal conservation. At first, the fishermen look at each other in amazement and ask: "Who is this trelos (crazy one) dropping out of the sky to lecture us about seals?" To them, seals are the enemy. They destroy nets, steal fish. There is only one thing to do with seals: shoot them.
Yet so persuasive is he that within half an hour the fishermen are not only laughing and joking with him, they have sworn to help him save the Mediterranean seal. From now on, instead of shooting seals, they will
simply report the sighting to the authorities. "Efharisto para poli" (thanks a lot) and he rushes back up the hill, climbs back into his helicopter and whirls off to another island to repeat the proceedure.

What is this man doing rushing around the Aegean proselytizing on behalf of an obscure species of seal? He is trying to save mankind. He is not sure it can be done. "I have become a pessimist in my old age," he says (he is 68). But then he is preoccupied with time running out. He is pessimistic because, even though we know what may happen, we sit on our hands doing nothing about it and time is running out.

And so, because the seal is a small yet integral link in the whole threatened life chain on our planet, Keith Ronald, Dean of the College of Biological Science, University of Guelph, Canada, has chosen to become Keith Ronald, activist and politician, the Crazy One who whirls his persuasive way through all 12 Dodecanese islands in three days hoping everyone else will start moving too. While there's still time.

The story of Monachus monachus, the monk seal of the Mediterranean,
dates back to the beginning of written history. Plutarch, Homer, Pliny
and Aristotle all wrote about it. In mythology, it was put under the protection of Poseidon and Apollo, due to its love of sea and to its docility, agility and intelligence.

Today, however, monk seals are in danger of extenction. The causes: water pollution, over-fishing and exploitation - including that by tourism - of coastlines. Only 400-800 are estimated to be alive in the entire Mediterranean region. Their disappearance would be a tragedy, Ronald believes. "If the seal cannot survive in the Med, then man himself may not be able to. Seals are air-breathing mammals, as we are. They are an indicator species of pollution, a guide to man's survival."

At the crux of the problem, he adds, is the the depressing truth that any marine mammal which competes with man is always in trouble. Man will not share; he wants it all. It is no contest.

Ronald believes man must be won over - and fast. And the campaign to
save the monk seal - which has been responsible for his spending his
summer "vacation" in the Mediterranean every year for the past six years
- does show signs of succeeding. Funded by grants from the National
Research Council of Canada and the Canadian National Sportmen's Show,
its three-stage program to establish the habitats of the seals, put together data on them, and to persuade local governments to set up seal preserves, is well under way. On his campaign trips, Ronald talks not only to fishermen, but to scientists and government officials.

GHQ for this far-flung campaign is the College of Biological Science at Guelph, where Ronald has been instrumental in building what many consider the world's finest marine biology laboratory. Some 65 seals have been kept in captivity here. Much of the research is concentrated on studying their diving, breathing and communication techniques.

The seal, whose lungs resemble man's, can stay underwater for as long
as 45 minutes at great depths, thanks to a special mechanism which slows
down its heartbeat and restricts the flow of blood from heart to brain only. Despite being deprived of oxygen, the other parts of the seal's body suffer no damage.

Mankind stands to reap immense benefits from the Guelph research. "Open-heart surgery, for instance, could be revolutionized if the patient were able to slow down his hearbteat to near zero, as the seal does underwater," says Ronald.

"Then too, man is starting to move back into and under the sea again,
using artificial aids like scuba and submersibles. All of these things raise problems of pressure and decompression. The seal, though, can go straight down and straight back up again. It doesn't have any of the wasteful periods we face.

"If we can figure out how the seal does it and adapt these methods for our own purposes, man will be a lot more successful in his exploration of the sea.

"We have 25 years in which to correct 300 years' worth of mistakes. Unless we can seize history now and turn it down a new path," he says, "our ecological sufferings will be swifter and more terrible than we can perhaps imagine." In a convocation address at McGill recently, he bluntly told the graduation class: "Whatever happens ecologically in the next 25 years will happen to you, not others. Man has entered for the first time into an era of the us, not the they. What biologists are predicting will happen us us."

The solution? Not an easy one: an entire rethinking of man's role. "Man must first be made to see that humanity's common enemy is, as Malraux said, humanity itself.

"We have worshipped man as a special organism, assigning him special
privileges. But man is little different from any other organism. We should not consider him in the same way we consider any other animal. What are the basics he needs to live? That's all he should be allowed - no special privileges, no extras. Or no future."