When Hawaiian monk seals haul their heavy bodies out of the surf, they move the way a caterpillar does. That is, a caterpillar with a whole lotta blubber. Hawaiian monk seals hump their 600-pound bodies forward with little help from their short, front flippers.
Once on the beach, Hawaiian monk seals snooze like it’s Thanksgiving afternoon—sleeping off a big feed from the deep sea, their grins evoking an enlightened sense of peace and wistfulness that we all wish we could obtain. Don’t confuse their motionless state for anything other than rest. Even though they spend approximately two-thirds of their life at sea, they live and breathe just fine out of the water. They are, after all, marine mammals.
Hawaiian Monk Seal Diet
After a day lounging on the beach–with maybe the only trick these seals perform being the flick of their front flipper to scratch their sandy heads–their bellies start to grumble. Clumsy on land, Hawaiian monk seals take to water with the greatest of ease, swimming offshore at night to forage for food at average depths of 300 feet, but, if need be, these blubber-coated pinnipeds will zip down to 1,500 feet and more for a tasty meal. Monk seals are definitely not picky eaters, exploring the buffet line of reefs and rocks for lobster, eel, octopus and fish. Dives average 15 to 20 minutes.
Hawaiian Monk Seals Listed as Endangered Species
On the Hawaiian Island of Kaua’i, it is not as rare as it once was to stumble upon a Hawaiian monk seal sleeping on the beach. Does that mean the endangered marine mammal is making a comeback? Far from it.
The total species population tallies a mere 1,100 animals.
That’s why this website exists. KauaiSeals.com supports the efforts of professionals and volunteers alike who monitor and protect the critically-endangered Hawaiian monk seals on Kaua’i. These marine mammals swim all around Hawai’i’s waters—from Big Island at the southern end of the island chain all the way to Midway and Kure Atolls some 1,500 miles away at the northern end. Many teams work together to preserve this rare creature. This website spotlights the dedicated work taking place on Kaua’i—often called The Garden Island—where at any given time some 30 Hawaiian monk seals live.
On Kaua’i, when one of these animals—from the scientific family Phocidae—hauls out on the beach, a team of volunteers dutifully ropes off the area, posting signs and answering questions from curious onlookers.
They may remind you of other pinnipeds like the sea lions that congregate on the docks of San Francisco Bay or the harbor seals that line the rocky shoreline of Monterey, yet Hawaiian monk seals are endemic to Hawaii and found nowhere else in the world. They are one of only two mammals native to the remote islands of Hawai’i.
Hawaiian Monk Seals Considered a “Living Fossil”
The Hawaiian monk seal has endured for 13 million years, virtually unchanged in its physiology, giving rise to the label, “living fossil.” Thirteen million years. That’s eight million years before Kaua’i popped above the sea. Twelve million years before Big Island emerged. These solitary seals have watched land appear, grow and—as it erodes—slip back into the sea. They have also watched as humans discovered these tropical isles.
The seal’s common name derives from its round head and folds of fur around its neck, similar in appearance to a medieval friar. Too, the name mirrors the solitary existence that these seals live–once weaned–much like that of their namesake.
Physical Description of Hawaiian Monk Seals
Weighing 25 to 30 pounds at birth, these seals wear a coat of black fur that is shed within a few weeks after entering this world. As the natal fur falls out, dark gray hair pushes through on the dorsal side and creamy white fur replaces the black on the pup’s underside. During the five to seven weeks after birth, mom sticks close to her pup, nursing it on the beach and exploring the nearby water and reef. The entire time, mom forgoes her own feeding, slowly wasting away to a bag of bones before hunger finally drives her to the sea. Once that happens, the pup is on its own.
As the seal ages, its fur weathers to a varying shade of brown and the animal grows to six to eight feet and weighing in at 500 to 700 pounds.
Threats to Survival of the Hawaiian Monk Seal
Known to the native Hawaiians as ʻilio-holo-i-ka-uaua, or “dog that runs in rough waters,” the Hawaiian monk seal received its scientific name, Monachus schauinslandi, when Dr. H. Schauinsland discovered the first skull known to science on Laysan Island in what is now the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
While it may seem seals are popping up left and right here on Kaua’i and the other main Hawaiian Islands, they are still America’s most endangered marine mammal and the second-most endangered on the planet. Overall, they number some 1,100, with 90% of the population located in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, where their plight is not nearly as rosy as it is here in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Scientists have tried to halt the decline and, yet, the Hawaiian monk seal continues to die off by 4% annually.
According to the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, over the last 50 years, the Hawaiian monk seal population has declined by more than 60% and is now at its lowest level in recorded history. There is no one reason why. It’s a complex problem. Scientists mention overfishing that leads to starvation, especially among pups; marine debris entanglement that leads to drowning; habitat loss; shark predation; aggressive male behavior; harmful algal blooms and loss of habitat due to climate change.
If something doesn’t change soon, our seals will follow the plight of the Caribbean monk seal, which was confirmed extinct in 2008.
Protection and Raising Awareness for the Hawaiian Monk Seal
In 1976, the Hawaiian monk seal was designated an endangered species and is, therefore, protected by the Endangered Species Act—as well as the Marine Mammal Protection Act—which makes it illegal to harass, capture or kill one of these rare pinnipeds.
To help raise awareness of the plight of the Hawaiian monk seal, on June 11, 2008 by Lieutenant Governor James Aiona declared the Hawaiian monk seal as Hawaii’s official State Mammal and designated the third Saturday of every April as “Hawaiian Monk Seal Day.”
What to Do if You Encounter a Hawaiian Monk Seal
If you come across a seal on the beach, about the only trick you’ll see them perform is brushing their face with their flipper. That’s because when seals haul out, they do so to rest. If they are disturbed–by us, our dogs or otherwise–they made head back into the water too soon. A fatigued seal is much easier prey for sharks than a rested one. So give resting seals wide berth. It’s actually the law. As an endangered animal, it is illegal to disturb them.
Here are some responsible viewing guidelines from NOAA Fisheries:
1. Keep a safe distance. For seals, that’s 50 yards/150 feet. Do not chase, closely approach, surround, feed, swim with, or attempt to touch marine wildlife. Use binoculars or telephoto lenses to assure a good view from the recommended distances.
2. In the ocean, monk seals may exhibit inquisitive behavior. Do not attempt to approach these seals or “play” with them. The seals may misinterpret your actions and could cause serious injury. Cautiously swim back to shore or your boat and watch them from a safe distance.
3. Do not attempt to push seals back into the water.
4. Use extra caution in the vicinity of mothers and young and in other sensitive wildlife habitat used for feeding, nursing, resting or avoiding predators.
5. For your safety and their protection, never entice marine wildlife to approach you.
6. Be careful not to surprise marine wildlife. Loud noises and abrupt movements can startle and stress wildlife, which can react unpredictably, harming themselves or you. Disturbing wildlife interrupts their ability to perform critical functions such as feeding, breeding, nursing, resting or socializing.
7. When in the presence of monk seals, please remember to keep your pet on a leash at all times in order to protect against injury and the transmission of disease between seals and pets.
You can help, too.
1. Whenever you come across seals on the beach, report sightings by calling 808-651-7668—but do not approach or disturb them;
2. Learn about monk seals and their need for protected habitat;
3. Help control marine debris; dispose of rubbish carefully; reduce, reuse, recycle.