Yulia, the endangered seal, didn’t seem phased by rockets from Gaza, let alone missiles heading in the opposite direction.
About six feet long and two decades old, Yulia pulled herself up onto a sandy beach last Friday in Jaffa, an ancient city immediately south of Tel Aviv. It was the fourth five days of struggle between the Israeli army and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
She fell asleep immediately.
Yulia was the definition of an incongruous show. Two days earlier, air raid sirens on the same shore had sent swimmers and sunbathers rushing to municipal bomb shelters. Today an endangered Mediterranean monk seal – one of around 700 in the world – landed on an Israeli coast for the first known time since 2010.
“A miracle,” said Ruthy Yahel, a marine ecologist at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority who helped monitor Yulia this week. “It knows no limits, no borders, no wars between countries.”
Yulia lay on the beach for days, sleeping oblivious to the announcement of a ceasefire. She was unresponsive when crowds began gathering over the weekend to watch her as she slept. She appeared indifferent when a local boy named her Yulia, and the name began to make headlines in Israeli newspapers.
Instead, she focused on shedding, her fur gradually changing hue from brown to gray. Sometimes she rolled on the sand. But above all, she was sleeping.
As its fame spread, the Israel Nature Authority cordoned off the beach to prevent passers-by from disturbing it. Kan, the national broadcaster, driven a camera at his sleeping place, providing an online livestream. she inspired memes on social networks, with users joke that she could defeat embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an election.
In the space of a weekend, Israel’s national conversation shifted partly from the war to the seals – providing one of the frequent examples of the emotional whiplash that defines daily life in Israel, where a conflict decades old with the Palestinians, coupled with growing internal divisions, make for a turbulent existence. Internal troubles one week, deadly conflict the next — closely followed by the appearance of rare marine fauna.
“We’re all looking for a bit of common sense given all the craziness that’s going on,” said Avi Blyer, 47, a host who came to see the seal on Wednesday morning.
“She is an ambassador for mental health,” Mr Blyer added. “She represents something else.”
For conservation experts, Yulia’s arrival is also a small victory after decades of efforts to revive a nearly extinct species.
In the late 1800s, the population of Mediterranean monk seals numbered in the thousands, experts say, but fell to a few hundred during the 20th century after hunters killed too many and human activity took a toll. damaged seal 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,” said Ms Yahel, the marine ecologist.
Like many travellers, Yulia stopped in Turkey before heading to Israel.
After Mia Elasar, an Israeli seal specialist, sent photos of Yulia to colleagues in Turkey, the Turks spotted a familiar and distinctive mark on her back – a scar they liken to a “tughra”, or the calligraphic signature of an ottoman caliph.
The Turkish team realized the seal was one they had tracked since the mid-2000s and had regularly spotted in caves near Mersin in southern Turkey, most recently in March. The seal was so familiar to Turkish marine experts that they knew it for years as Tugra (pronounced TUR-rah) – after the Turkish spelling of the calligraphic signature.
It’s a mystery why the seal swam the more than 320 miles to Jaffa, but one theory is that the growing seal population has created more competition for food, pushing it further.
Yulia appears bolder than most of her species, Turkish experts said – generally less afraid of human contact and more prepared to swim long distances. In 2019, she was spotted in Lebanon.
“She’s a really particularly easy-going seal,” said Meltem Ok, a Turkish marine scientist who said she’s been tracking Tugra/Yulia since 2005. “She doesn’t really care about human presence.”
At one point last week, Yulia seemed so indifferent that Ms. Elasar, the Israeli seal expert, became concerned about her death. To check that she was still breathing, Mrs. Elasar slowly crept towards her in the darkness, carefully watching for signs of life. Suddenly, the seal’s nose twitched and she opened only one eye.
“It was the only time any of us really got close to her,” said Ms. Elasar, a researcher at the Delphis Association, an Israeli nonprofit that works to protect marine mammals. .
For the Israelis, the news of the seal gave a brief balm after a sequence of successive crises – from a deep social divide about the government’s proposed changes to the judiciary, about last week’s war and an insurrection in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Locally, he briefly distracted from ethnic tensions in Jaffa, once a predominantly Arab city where remaining Arab residents often feel priced out by growing gentrification.
News about Yulia’s movements has dominated social media groups in the neighborhood in recent days, said Deborah Danan, a Jaffa resident who leads one such group.
“It’s nice to be able to talk about where the seal is on the beach – rather than the nearest air raid shelter, or if there’s a protest,” Ms Danan said.
But on Wednesday visitors were greeted by a disappointingly empty beach. Yulia had disappeared into the sea and it was unclear if she would return.
On Thursday, Yulia made a few failed attempts to land on a beach further north, but each time she seemed put off by the presence of dogs.
“I hope for this country that she comes back,” Ms Danan said. “This country needs a distraction.”
Myra Noveck and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.