A diver who captured this amazing poignant footage of Kostis, a seal which became the mascot for a Greek island, has spoken of his grief over the creature’s brutal death.
Nikos Vardakas was delighted to be joined by the friendly young monk seal playing happily with him underwater as he and a small group were diving on an ancient wreck near the island of Alonissos earlier this month.
But tragically, the stunning video – shown here for the first time by MailOnline – would be the last time Kostis was filmed, as a few days later, he was callously killed by a fisherman’s spear gun, sending shockwaves among his fans around the world.
A police hunt has now been launched for the culprit and a reward offered by Greek marine conservation charity Mom, which nurtured the pup after he was separated from his mother during a violent storm, Cyclone Zorbas, in 2018 — and rescued by a fisherman named Kostis.
Diver Nikos Vardakas was with friends when he captured the final footage of the beloved monk seal Kostis (pictured) days before he was ‘deliberately killed’ off the coast of Alonissos island
Kostis (pictured) was rescued from a violent storm in 2018 and became well-known for his friendly demeanour leading to islanders on Alonissos adopting him as their unofficial mascot
Kostis became well known and was adopted by the islanders of Alonissos as their unofficial mascot. He captured their hearts in much the same way as the octopus in the hit Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher, showing the remarkable bond between a film-maker and the undersea creature living in a South African kelp forest.
Diving instructor Nikos, 46, who is also an actor in films and on Greek TV, said he’d never heard of Kostis when he and three friends were 25m under the sea on an ancient wreck near the island of Peristera, near Alonissos, a fortnight ago.
‘I was at the back of the group and I suddenly felt something touching my calf,’ he recalled. ‘I turned round and there was this seal, coming round the other way.
All smiles: Kostis the monk seal who has since been killed, sparking a police investigation
‘I’ve made over 5,000 dives and I’ve never had an experience like it. Dolphins can be friendly, and normally seals are quite shy, but this one was very keen to play and wanted me to respond.
‘At first, I wasn’t sure if I should push him away, but I honestly felt there was a deep connection. Sometimes he hugged my leg with his flippers, and at one point we took a selfie together!
‘It was like playing with my dog, but the initial approach all came from him.
‘Then my dive buddy Zoe Pristouri, a novice diver, came back towards us and Kostis (as I later discovered his name to be) was playing with her, but very gently, never being aggressive.
‘I’ve never seen a seal behaving in this way before and it really felt magical.
‘I want people to see the film of Kostis so they too can see he was an animal, with a soul, who was trying to connect with humans in a way that, tragically, humans don’t seem able to understand.’
The remarkable underwater encounter lasted for 20 minutes, and even after the divers returned to the boat, Kostis surfaced to say hello and put his head on the stern of the vessel.
Later Nikos learned that Kostis was known to seek out interaction with swimmers and snorkellers and sailors around the island.
But after Nikos returned home to Athens, a friend drew his attention to the devastating news about Kostis’ demise – thought to be at the hands of a fisherman.
Kostis was known to seek out interaction with swimmers and snorkellers around the island
People release orphaned monk seal Kostis into the wild after being treated at a rescue centre
‘I was so upset when I heard he was dead,’ said Nikos. ‘Some of my friends were saying, well, he’s just an animal, but that’s missing the point. We connected on a deep level and you cannot just dismiss that so easily.
‘To me it felt like a relationship with a kid who hadn’t quite grown up and was maybe a little bit insecure, looking for love. I can’t help wondering if that innocence made Kostis more vulnerable to whoever killed him.’
Monk seals – which grow to about 280kg when mature – are extremely rare and therefore a protected species, but fishermen blame them for damaging their nets and eating their catch.
There are believed to be fewer than 700 Mediterranean monk seals in the wild.
MOm has vowed to sue the person responsible for Kosti’s death while the charity’s Facebook pages have been flooded with hundreds of comments calling for the seal’s killer to be brought to justice.
The news of Kostis’ demise was reported across Europe, as well as in the US and Australia.
MOm condemned his death as they offered a £12,000 reward for information about the culprit.
MOm condemned his death as they offered a £12,000 reward for information about the culprit
Monk seals like Kostis (pictured) are extremely rare and therefore a protected species
They said in a statement: ‘Unfortunately, yet again, it is proven that human wickedness and stupidity have no limits!
‘The innocent and unaware seal was executed at close range with a spear gun that had a large spear for exactly that purpose!
‘This news was received with great grief and outraged not only the people of MOm (who cared for several months for Kostis during his rehabilitation), but also all the residents and visitors of Alonnisos who had the luck to admire ‘Kostis’ from close by.
‘We call upon the relevant authorities to take immediate action in order to bring the person(s) responsible for this barbarous act to justice.
‘Any citizen who has any information about the incident should contact the Port Police authorities immediately.’
To donate to the work of MOm, visit: https://www.mom.gr/home