The Mediterranean Sea is bordered by 21 countries and is filled with more than 17,000 species for some awe-inspiring sights. Whether you’re going on a Mediterranean cruise or just learning about the spectacular sea creatures of the Mediterranean Sea, you will surely be greeted by at least one of the most beautiful marine species on the list below.
Although there are 17,000 species in the Med, it’s alarming to know that some of them are critically endangered and are at risk of extinction. Let’s get to know some of the most enchanting sea creatures in the Mediterranean.
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The Mediterranean Monk Seal is among the rarest sea animals in the world and is the only seal living in the Mediterranean. They used to live in the Black Sea, Eastern Atlantic, and the Mediterranean Sea – however, has now become extinct in the Black Sea and can only be seen on isolated coasts in the Mediterranean (around the Madeira Islands of Portugal and Cape Blanc).
The Mediterranean Monk Seal is already listed as a critically endangered species since only about 600 are left on earth. Its small population is mainly caused by commercial exploitation, pollution, and overfishing, making them at risk of extinction.
The seal has a brown body with a yellowish bottom and weighs about 180kg. It can live for 20 to 30 years with an average length of 2.4m in adults. It lives by feeding on octopus, mollusks, sea bream, bogue, and red mullet.
It is quite difficult to spot one on your Mediterranean vacation since they live in hard-to-reach areas which are far from human contact. If you’re lucky, you might find them in the eastern Mediterranean Sea – specifically, in Greece, Turkey, Algeria, and Cyprus.
Cuvier’s Beaked Whales are identified by its dark grey body and light-colored head and belly. Depending on their location, some may appear brownish since it’s covered in algae. It has a stout body, a short beak, two throat grooves, and a sloped head. They can weigh as heavy as 3,000kg and grow as long as 7m.
Its body is usually covered with scratches or scars that are associated with aggression, mating, and an active lifestyle. These species swim in groups of 2-7 and usually linger in offshore areas to feed on fish and squid. They have a pair of teeth at the lower jaw which is usually used by males to fight over females.
Their teeth aren’t used for gripping prey; they suction and suck them into their mouth instead. These whales spend their time deep diving for food, thus grabbing the title of the mammal with the deepest and longest dives.
They are difficult to spot since they stay in deep waters, but are occasionally found in the eastern Ligurian Sea, Alboran Sea, and the Hellenic Trench.
Known as the “greyhounds of the sea”, the Fin Whale is the second-largest animal in the world and is commonly found in the Mediterranean Sea. Although they are among the largest whale species, they can swim as fast as 50km/hour. They grow as long as 27m and weigh a maximum of 70,000kg for males and 120,000kg for females.
Its body is predominantly gray with a pale belly, and a unique characteristic is the asymmetrical coloring of its jaw (the left lower jaw is black, whereas the right is white). The purpose of the color difference is still unknown, yet some believe it has something to do with hunting.
Fin Whales prefer the high seas to catch food including krill, schooling fish, and crustaceans. They eat by opening their throats to gulp a tremendous amount of water and filter out their food. What’s even more amazing is how they can feed on about 2,000kg of krill a day.
If you’re looking for Fin Whales, they are found in cooler waters and mostly exist in the western and central Mediterranean Sea. About 5,000 adults can be found in the Balearic Islands up to the Ionian Sea.
Some of the reasons for their decline in numbers are ship strikes and DDT intoxication.
Long-finned Pilot Whales are actually classified as dolphins – and are the second largest of the dolphin family. They have a globose head and two very long flippers. Their body is mostly black or dark gray with a white chest and can grow an average length of 5m to 7m.
Pilot Whales are highly sociable creatures that are commonly seen in tight groups of more than ten. They have a strong family relationship, sticking together at all times – whether for hunting or resting. At the surface of the water, they can be seen poking out their heads or splashing their tails.
When it is time to feed, they usually dive as deep as 600m for about 15 minutes at night and use echolocation to hunt. A Pilot Whale’s diet consists of deep-sea squid, octopus, small pelagic fish, and other cephalopods. Since they don’t have as many teeth for grasping their prey, they tend to engulf the food into their mouths.
Although they are spread across the globe, the areas of special concern are in the Mediterranean Sea, specifically the western region in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Alboran Sea. These whales also prefer deep offshore locations with cold and mild waters. Their numbers can possibly decline due to human activities like overfishing, by-catch, ship collision, whale watching, and pollution.
Sperm Whales are the biggest whales in the ocean. They have enormous squared heads since they have the largest brain among other animals on earth. Their jaw has 53 teeth, each weighing 1kg. Sperm whales have spatulate flippers, dorsal fins, and two pectoral fins.
Young Sperm Whales tend to live together in groups but will eventually live a solitary lifestyle when becoming an adult. These adult Sperm Whales soon migrate and look for female whales for mating season. Unlike male Sperm Whales, the females prefer to stick together and take care of the young.
Sperm Whales usually hunt deep into the depths of the ocean. They can dive more than 1km deep and stay underwater for more than an hour. They feed on squid, octopus, cephalopods, fish, crustaceans, and even sharks.
In the past, it was common to find Sperm Whales in the Mediterranean Sea – specifically, in the Strait of Messina. However, nowadays, they are rarely seen in the area as their population has decreased due to ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement.
Risso’s Dolphins don’t have beaks like other dolphins. Their gray body eventually becomes covered in scratches and scars caused by other dolphins and hunting. It has a bulbous squared head and a white chest.
They swim in small groups of up to 45 members, but can even be as big as 100. These sociable animals are highly active but tend to be quite shy around boats.
They usually hunt for prey in deep waters and prefer squid, cuttlefish, shrimp, and prawns.
Though there isn’t much evidence that Risso’s Dolphins are becoming extinct, their population is threatened by the effects of human activities including pollution, entanglement in fishing gear, and underwater noise pollution.
The Bottlenose Dolphin is what is normally shown on TV and in aquarium waterparks. They typically have a dark gray body, a pale belly, and a short beak that has a mouth that seemingly forms a smile. As charming as this smile may be, it has unfortunately caused them to be exploited for entertainment purposes.
Bottlenose Dolphins are some of the most intelligent and sociable animals on earth. They usually swim in a group since they profoundly rely on companionship. These dolphins always look out for each other, hunt together for food, and play.
A typical diet of a Bottlenose Dolphin includes salmon, squid, and crustaceans. They don’t normally chew on their prey; they like to toss them in the air and swallow them whole. Some of these dolphins would catch their prey in fish farm cages or take some from gillnets.
It is estimated to have about 10,000s of Bottlenose Dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea. However, it has also been observed that there is a steady decline in population in the past 50 years. For instance, there has been a 50% decrease in population in the Adriatic Sea, mainly because of the fishing industries that see them as a threat.
Also known as the “Hourglass Dolphin”, this multi-colored dolphin got its name from the hourglass pattern on its body, making it easily distinguishable from others. Short-beaked Common Dolphins have a dark gray body with pale yellow and light gray sides that form an hourglass shape. Aptly named, they typically have a shorter beak compared to others.
These species are normally found offshore and on coasts where they hunt for food. They have a variety of food preferences, consisting of schooling fish and squid. Echolocation is a common hunting technique they use to catch their prey – and it’s also common for them to hunt as a group since they are cooperative feeders who work with each other.
These species swim in large groups of between 50 to 70 members. They are acrobatic animals who can jump out of the water at high speeds. One of their most interesting behaviors is bow-riding with the pressure waves of a variety of boats.
In the Mediterranean Sea, there has been a 50% decline in this dolphin species population. It is considered an endangered species in the Mediterranean since its population is threatened by the fishing industry.
Striped Dolphins are distinguishable by the striped patterns on their bodies. They have blue-grey and white stripes that flow from the beak to their underside, and they can grow as large as 2.6m for males and 2.4m for females with a weight of about 150kg to 160kg.
These fast species travel in groups and are found in open and deep waters. They have an astonishing speed that can jump three times their body. They enjoy playing in the water and are normally seen leaping and performing somersaults.
Like most dolphins, they prefer to feed on squid and small fish, particularly lanternfish. They hunt in productive waters that are abundant in food and can dive in mid or deep depths of the ocean to hunt for squid.
The western and eastern Mediterranean Sea is filled with Striped Dolphins. They are most commonly found in the Alboran Sea, Ligurian Sea, the waters of the Balearic Islands, the Gulf of Lion, and the waters of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1991, it was estimated to have a population of more than 100,000 members; however, in recent years, it has declined in numbers since they are killed for their meat and other human activities.
Also called the “puffing pig” (since they have sneeze-like breathing), Harbor Porpoises are now listed as endangered species that used to be extinct in the Mediterranean Sea. At present, they inhabit the entire Black Sea coast and are protected by conservation efforts such as the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS).
Harbor Porpoises have a body shaped like a whale with a round head and no beak. Its dark brown body is smaller than most dolphins and has a light gray underside. It is easily distinguishable by the small triangular-shaped fin on its back.
Unlike other social dolphins, they are usually seen swimming alone, in small groups, or just a mother and her baby together. Compared to other dolphins, Harbor Porpoises live shortly and mate more often. They tend to live in cool waters and feed in winter feeding grounds.
Since they have a faster metabolism, their bodies need to feed frequently for sustenance. They live off small schooling fish, squid, octopus, and sand eels.
The most common type of sea turtle in the Mediterranean Sea, Loggerhead Turtle got its name from its unusually large head and powerful jaws. Its body grows up to 1.2m and has a reddish-brown color, with a thick and smooth shell. They are commonly found in coastal and marine waters, mainly because of food availability in these areas.
Their habitat changes depending on their age; juveniles migrate to open waters, whereas adults are observed in coastal shores and estuarine areas where they can eat or lay eggs. They adopt a solitary lifestyle and migrate frequently. These turtles tend to move slowly and require going back to the surface to breathe.
These carnivorous turtles have strong jaws that allow them to feed on clams, crabs, shellfish, jellyfish, and fish. They also have a strong protective shell that is thick enough to withstand shark attacks.
Not only are they threatened by other animals, but they’re now endangered because of by-catch and overfishing. Since they lay eggs on the beach, their survival is threatened by hotels and houses in the area that causes disorientation to the hatchlings.
These nesting areas are commonly found in Cyprus, Greece, Libya, and Turkey. Additionally, Loggerhead Turtles can be found feeding in the northern Albania Sea, between the Alboran Sea and the Balearic Sea, the Ionian Sea, the Strait of Sicily, and in the coasts of Turkey, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.
As the name suggests, Green Sea Turtles have a dark greyish-green body and shell, with a yellowish-white lower shell. They can grow up to 1.5m long and 230kg in weight, making it the largest among other shelled turtles.
One of the fascinating things about these turtles is that their food preferences change as they grow. Juveniles feed on jellyfish and invertebrates, whereas adults are herbivores that live off sea lettuce and algae that give them their greenish color.
It takes 25-35 years for Green Turtles to become sexually mature, and every 2-4 years, females go back to nesting beaches and lay their eggs. These eggs take two months to incubate and hatch.
Once hatched, the hatchlings move to the open sea and float on Sargassum, after which, these young turtles move to coastal waters and shallow waters as a feeding ground. They normally prefer warm currents and are spread across the Mediterranean Sea, specifically in the coastal waters of Cyprus, Syria, and Turkey.
Their species are considered endangered and are extremely vulnerable – especially the survival of eggs on the polluted coasts. They are often caught in fishing gear and are heavily affected by pollution and diseases like fibropapillomatosis.
Leatherbacks are the biggest turtles on earth and can grow up to 3m. These turtles aren’t common in the Mediterranean Sea but can sometimes be spotted in every area and country in the Med, specifically the Aegean Sea, Tyrrhenian Sea, and the Strait of Sicily.
They don’t have nesting grounds in the Mediterranean and are more likely to lay their eggs in more isolated areas near deep waters in the Atlantic.
Since their favorite prey is jellyfish, they prefer the open waters to coastal shores. They also feed on crabs, small fish, and other gelatinous invertebrates.
Because of their body composition, they can survive the cold water areas by regulating their body temperature to lessen heat loss. Its dark gray body has white spots and doesn’t have a shell. Instead, it is covered with a leathery outer layer that looks like the skin of a Harbor Seal.
Unfortunately, these turtles are now critically endangered. Their population has decreased by over 78%; egg poaching and predation are some of the many causes of their decline. They are also victims of by-catch, fishing gear entanglement, and ingestion of plastics that look like jellyfish.
From hammerheads to nurse sharks and blue sharks, there are more than 40 species of sharks that can be found in the Mediterranean Sea and are considered harmless to people. Plus, there are a lot of different species of rays that can be watched from afar if you’re on a cruise ship, including stingrays, sawfish, and electric rays.
However, it is unfortunate to know that more than half of sharks and rays in the Mediterranean Sea are critically endangered – and almost close to extinction.
These marine predators are important for the overall health of the ocean. The drastic decline of the population is mainly caused by overfishing and irresponsible fishing. Sharks are slow-growing animals that take time to mature and reproduce, which makes it difficult for them to increase their population.
According to IUCN, the Mediterranean Sea is considered a dangerous place for sharks and rays. Out of the total population, 42% are threatened, 18% are critically endangered, 11% are endangered, and 13% are vulnerable. According to National Geographic, the Great White Shark is considered at risk for extinction.
If you’re going to the Mediterranean, be on the lookout for different types of sharks and rays, including:
- The Devil Ray (Mobula mobular)
- The Porbeagle Shark (Lamna nasus)
- The Maltese Skate (Leucoraja melitensis)
- Shortfin Mako Shark (Isurus oxyrinchus).
Through the Suez Canal, Pufferfish (Tetraodontidae), also known as “blowfish”, is an alien fish that has invaded the Mediterranean Sea in the past decades. This omnivore grows up to 3ft, and often moves and swims clumsily. They can open clams and shellfish with their four teeth and its body can grow up to 24in.
When predators are around, it quickly becomes a ball by consuming large amounts of water and air. Their skin is thick and rough, but elastic enough to stretch when inflating.
They have a round head and come in a variety of colors, such as gray, blue, white, and yellow. Its life span is only 4-8 years – and it prefers to live in shallow and tropical waters.
Pufferfish reach sexual maturity in 5 years. The males help the females come to shore where they lay eggs, which are then protected with a strong eggshell that allows them to float and drift into the waters.
These species contain a toxic substance called tetrodotoxin, which is lethal to fish and humans. For us humans, tetrodotoxin is a thousand times more lethal than cyanide. Once the poison is ingested, no medicine can help remove it. It is estimated that the toxin in one pufferfish is sufficient to kill at least 30 adults.
The Mediterranean Sea is filled with an increasing number of jellyfish that come in different shapes, colors, and sizes. They can be as small as 10cm and as big as a human being.
Some jellyfish can be harmless to people with a sting that doesn’t hurt. However, take extra precautions on other dangerous jellyfish that have a critical sting level that can cause severe side effects, like neurological damage, vomiting, and fever.
Some of the harmless jellyfish that have a mild sting or none at all are:
- By-The-Wind Sailor
- Fried Egg Jellyfish
- Common Jellyfish
- Warty Comb Jelly
- Barrel Jellyfish
Other types of jellyfish that you need to watch out for are:
- Cigar Jellyfish
- Nomad Jellyfish
- Portuguese Man o’War
- Purple-Striped Jellyfish
- Mediterranean Box Jellyfish
- Upside Down Jellyfish
- Compass Jellyfish
- Flower Hat Jelly
Their stings can cause mild to severe pain that usually requires medical attention. Some can cause rashes and extremely dangerous effects like difficulty breathing, diarrhea, and worse, death.
Aptly named, the Mediterranean Swordfish has a distinctive sword-like head with a long and pointed bill that is used to cut their prey (not spear them).
Their body can grow to about 3m long and weigh up to 650kg; the females are bigger than males. Their lifespan is nine years or more, and sexual maturity starts at 4-5 years.
They have a special body feature that heats their eyes and brain for better vision to help catch prey easily, with speed and agility. It’s one of the fastest fish on earth – and can move as fast as 100km per hour.
Their most common prey are smaller fish like mackerel, herring, and rockfish. They also like to feed on squid, sand lance, and crustaceans. They feed themselves mostly at night, using their swords to kill larger prey, whereas smaller prey is engulfed whole.
Unfortunately, swordfish are already critically endangered in the Mediterranean. About 70% of the species are already gone – and immediate action is in serious need.
The plummeted population is caused by countries consuming juvenile swordfish – which disrupts future reproductions – as well as most common causes, such as overfishing and fishing malpractices. The countries with the most catch of swordfish are Italy, Greece, Morocco, Spain, and Tunisia. Other countries that also target swordfish are Algeria, Cyprus, Turkey, and Malta.
Although Flying Fish can’t fly similarly to birds, they can glide using their long wing-like fins. Once it makes a powerful leap out of the surface of the water, it glides through the air – and can stay airborne at distances of 655ft long and 4ft high. This unique feature is believed to help them escape from predators including swordfish and tuna, but it also makes them become prey for birds in the air.
The ability to glide on the surface is made possible by reaching a speed of 37 miles per hour underwater and leaping out with its four-winged fins. It also flaps its tail to maintain its position on the surface. Somehow, these fish are attracted to light, which makes them vulnerable to fishermen who use it as a technique to catch them.
After gliding, the pectoral fins are folded, and eventually, they go back underwater and beat their tails again to push them for another glide.
Their average size is about 15cm, but they can grow up to 45cm. The typical diet of Flying Fish consists of small crustaceans and plankton.