Monk Seal Monday #34: RK42

As you may recall, the first Kauai pup was born on April 20, 2018 at Maha’ulepu to RK13. While this pup was with her mother she was known as PK1 (Pup Kauai #1), and then after 37 days of nursing, her mother weaned her, and we briefly captured and flipper tagged her. This process usually takes less than five minutes and includes a brief restraint while plastic flipper tags are applied in the webbing of the rear flippers. Her tags read K42 and K43, making her official ID RK42. The R indicates that she is part of the Main Hawaiian Island population and the K indicates she was born in 2018, and finally the 42 is her unique ID. During the tagging process her length and girth were also measured, a microchip was injected under her skin, and she was given her first vaccination against a virus in the measles family known as morbillivirus, also known as distemper in other species. You can learn more about this virus and the monk seal vaccination program here.


As previously reported, RK42 became entangled in hook and line fishing gear on July 28th, which left a large fish hook in her mouth. The Kauai team quickly responded and captured her on the beach and removed the hook. The hook was a rather large barbed J-hook that was somewhat difficult to remove, primarily due to the sharp barb which caused some tissue damage in her mouth and mild bleeding. She spent the rest of that day resting normally at Maha’ulepu, but has not been seen since.

It is not uncommon for young seals to find a quiet out of the way places to haul-out, so we hope that is the case. In fact, it’s happened before. In June 2009, R5AY gave birth on a North Shore Kaua`i​ beach to a female pup who was eventually tagged RA20. After weaning, as RA20 started to explore, she all but disappeared. Time between sightings would stretch into months and years. Then, surprising everyone, she started popping up on Maui and Hawai`i Island beaches. In 2017, she gave birth to her first pup. Unfortunately, the pup did not survive. However, earlier this year, RA20 gave birth to a second, healthy pup.

As with most wildlife, surviving to adulthood is not easy. First year survival rates for monk seals in the Main Hawaiian islands is approximately 80%. The hooking was a very minor so we have little reason to believe it caused her longer term problems, but again young monk seals face many threats, both anthropogenic and natural. However, we are optimistic we will see her hauled out somewhere sometime soon in good health.

This is a good reminder to report all monk seal sightings on Kaua`i by calling our hotline–808-651-7668.

Hawaiian monk seals can pup anytime throughout the year, but the majority tend to do so in the spring and summer. Typically, at the start of the year, our team starts tracking pregnant females, watching out for the regulars like RH58, RK30, and RK13. But the list will also include others and can tally more than 10. But we’ve yet to hit double digits in annual pup births on Kauai—at least, in recent history. There are likely moms who miscarry and others (like RK52) who produce stillborn pups. But a handful of pregnant females seem to disappear right before they give birth. Then, they return six or eight weeks later looking thin.

In science, “philopatry” is the tendency for an animal to stay or habitually return to the same place. “Natal philopatry” is the tendency for an animal to return to their birthplace to breed. In the case of Hawaiian monk seals, we often—but not always—see females return to their birthplace to pup. 

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program estimate approximately 300 of the endangered pinnipeds make their home in the Main Hawaiian Islands. On Kauai, we roughly estimate 50, although some seals do make inter-island trips. The island associated with the greatest number of monk seals is Niihau—at 150. Roughly 15 ocean miles separate Kauai from our neighbor island of Niihau. This is not a considerable journey for monk seals. In 2010, one monk seal outfitted with a tracking device made a 2,000-mile pelagic journey. So, for monk seals, 15 miles might be considered a walk in the park. And this can explain why 10 pregnant seals sighted on Kauai beaches results in five pups born on Kauai. A few return to their birth place on Niihau when it’s time for them to pup.

Here’s some data to illustrate:

RK14: A Kauai regular who was observed in 2017 with a pup on Niihau. RK14’s window of absence from Kauai was 8/16/17 to 11/23/17, but she isn’t sighted routinely–she likes to haul out on remote North Shore and Na Pali beaches, so her absence was most likely shorter.

R1KY: A Kauai regular who was observed in 2017 with a pup on Niihau. R1KY’s window of absence from Kauai was 4/8/17 to 6/16/17. In 2018 she wasn’t sighted on Kauai from 5/30/18 to 7/17/18, but no surveys happened on Niihau during this window so we’re unsure if she pupped. Here are before and after photos of her.

R1KY on 04182018R1KY on 07172018

R313: In 2017, she disappeared from 7/26/17 until 9/23/17, looking very large in July, but still pretty big when she came back, so we’re not sure what happened during that time. In 2018, she looked large and had teats protruding on 6/26/18 and was next sighted back on Kauai on 9/1/18 looking thin. 

In 2017, RK28 was on Kauai with teats protruding on 6/5/17, then gone until 8/24/17 when she was reported as “thin.” In 2018 she pupped on Kauai’s North Shore.

In 2018, RK90 likely pupped on Niihau between 12/28/17 and 2/17/18.

Storm Preparedness

Aloha Volunteers,

From weather briefs through the NOAA Emergency Response Team, although likely a weakening tropical storm, “Olivia” could give us dangerous weather – wind and rain- we want to carefully assess the risks in our marine animal response efforts as they come up.

Be advised that even with the storm weakened to a tropical storm we could have storm surge and inundation events which may be unpredictable. Hawaiian monk seal monitoring and responses to regular seal haul outs may be suspended depending on the the weather, ocean and flood conditions.  We will communicate via email and to volunteer team leads by phone with changes.

Please prepare and keep safe!

Mahalo for all your efforts, Mimi, Jamie and Mary W.

Monk Seal Monday #32: Molting

About the first of the month, two-year-old RH92 was reported to have started her annual molt. She joins four other seals known to have molted this year thus far: R1KT, R3CX, RG22, and V2.


Photo credit: Lynn Nowatzki

Hawaiian monk seals experience what’s called a “catastrophic molt,” meaning the loss of the top layer of skin and fur happens in one concentrated period of time, rather than continually throughout the year. The molting process can take one to two weeks. Because molting requires great energetic resources, during this time, the seal will usually stick pretty close to the beach, often spending the night tucked high up the beach and under bushes.

Molting is a vulnerable time for monk seals, another reason to encourage folks to keep dogs on leashes. Typically, the molt starts on the belly, flippers, muzzle, and scars. Then, moves to the back. The molting pattern isn’t exactly “attractive.” A seal with patches of dead skin falling off can often cause beach-goers concern, thinking the seal is sick or, even, dead.

Adult females will often molt soon after they wean their pups. Also, any seals outfitted with a telemetry tag near its molt will lose it during the molt. (If you happen upon a telemetry tag on the beach–it’s a rare event but it has happened–please call the monk seal hotline to report it.)

T21M.Donna Lee

Photo credit: D. Lee

Basically, seals molt, because their coat gets dirty. After spending long bouts of time at sea, algae will often grow on their fur. If you see a seemingly green-colored seal, you’ll know he or she is nearing his/her molt.

After molting, monk seals regain their dark gray to brown color on their dorsal (back) side and a light gray to yellowish brown color on their under (ventral) side. This difference in coloration is known as “countershading.” From below, the seal’s light belly blends in with the sunny surface of the ocean. From above, the seal’s darker back is closer in color to the dark ocean floor. This serves as camouflage for seals. It helps them sneak up on prey, as well as, hide from sharks and other predators.


Here’s the first interaction of RK58 and another pup named Sole at Ke Kai Ola. Sole was born on Molokai and is the older and larger of the two.

Like RK58, Sole was rescued and delivered to Ke Kai Ola–known colloquially as the Monk Seal Hospital–due to another mom-pup switch while nursing. Since 2014, Ke Kai Ola has cared for Hawaiian monk seals–mostly pups and weaners–at their facility at Kailua-Kona on Hawaii Island. Ke Kai Ola was built through a cooperative effort between the Marine Mammal Center and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

Also, speaking of RH58, on August 16, she was reported to be back on Oahu where she spends her non-motherhood days.

Meanwhile, back on Kauai, the first female to give birth this year, RK13, is putting on weight after weaning her pup, RK42. As you know, females do not feed during the five to seven weeks they nurse their pups, growing skinnier by the day. Typically, females will go into estrus sometime after weaning. They’ll also go through an annual molt in the weeks and months after weaning; however, RK13 hasn’t molted yet. She has been sighted with male R6FQ on numerous occasions since August 11th.

R6FQ is a seven-year-old male who is easily identified by deep line scars at the base of his left rear flipper, possibly sustained during a propeller strike when he was a juvenile. Prior to hanging around RK13, he was repeatedly sighted during June and half of July with RK90.

RK90 is an adult female who was likely born on Niihau. She popped up on a Kauai Beach as a juvenile in 2013 with a fish hook in her mouth. It was removed and at the same time she was flipper-tagged. Last May, she was also found with a large fish hook sticking out of her mouth. This was her second known hooking. Both hooks were successfully removed on the beach. Late last year, RK90 was sighted on Kauai looking large and very pregnant. Then, she disappeared for six weeks, returning in mid-February looking thin. It’s suspected that she returned to her natal island to give birth, something many, but not all, females do.

[This announcement comes from NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries.]

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 1.23.10 PM

An Alabama resident has now paid a $1,500 summary settlement for touching a Hawaiian monk seal and harassing a sea turtle on the island of Kauaʻi in Hawaiʻi.

The man, who was vacationing on Kauaʻi in fall 2017, posted videos of his interactions with the animals on Instagram, a popular social media platform for sharing photos and videos. An officer with NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) in Hawaiʻi used the man’s social media presence to identify his home address, issue the penalty, and educate him about the federal statutes protecting marine wildlife.

Hawaiian monk seals and all species of sea turtles in U.S. waters are listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, or ESA. Hawaiian monk seals, along with all dolphins and whales, are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Actions that may harass, harm, pursue, capture, injure, or kill the animals may be punishable through fines or jail time.

In recent years, NOAA Fisheries in the Pacific Islands region has closely monitored social media for potential ESA and MMPA violations. In most cases, violators aren’t intentionally harming or harassing wildlife, explains Adam Kurtz, a NOAA Fisheries wildlife management coordinator.

“Violations are usually the result of things like tourists wanting to get a good, close picture with a seal or a thrill seeker trying to get a rush,” Kurtz says. “But it’s really frustrating when you see people harass these animals.”

To view protected marine wildlife responsibly, follow NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Wildlife Viewing Guidelines and stay back at a respectful distance of 10 feet for sea turtles, 50 feet for seals, 50 yards for dolphins and small whales, and 100 yards for humpback whales.

If you do witness a potential marine animal ESA or MMPA violation in Hawaiʻi, call NOAA OLE at 1-800-853-1964 or email RespectWildlife@noaa.gov . To report general marine animal emergencies, call NOAA’s statewide reporting number at 1-888-256-9840.

Alarming Interactions

Though both Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles should only be viewed from a safe, respectful distance, the man’s interaction with the monk seal is especially alarming to NOAA considering that there are only 1,400 of the seals left in the wild and the interaction could have become life threatening.

In his Instagram video, the man walks up to a seal sleeping on Poʻipū Beach, Kauaʻi at night and strokes it with his hand. The startled seal quickly turns around toward its harasser, causing the man to run away.

As he vacates the beach, the man’s camera pans over a sign from NOAA and the state that urges beachgoers to maintain a safe distance and encourages compliance with marine wildlife laws.

“Even if they are sleeping and seem harmless, Hawaiian monk seals are still wild animals and they can act unpredictably,” Kurtz says. “The seal could have lunged at him.”

The violator used multiple hashtags in his caption of the video. One hashtag in particular – #monkseals — caught the attention of NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, which alerted the video to Kurtz who then sent it to OLE.

Taking Responsibility

The OLE officer on the case, seeking to learn more about the seal, reached out to Jamie Thomton, Kauaʻi coordinator of the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Response Program.

The response program, with help from dedicated volunteers and partners such as Hawaiʻi Marine Animal Response, Ke Kai Ola, and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources, keeps track of monk seals spotted on beaches throughout the main Hawaiian Islands. The volunteer network acts quickly to put up signage alerting everyone to the presence of monk seals, while maintaining a presence on beaches to educate the public about the endangered species.

Thomton confirmed that a seal was on Poʻipū at the time indicated in the Instagram post, and the OLE officer continued his investigation by digging into the man’s Instagram account.

He found another problematic video, in which the man aggressively pursued a sea turtle for an extended period while snorkeling at Poʻipū, an act that’s illegal under the ESA.

The OLE officer reached out to the man to issue him penalties for harassing the monk seal and sea turtle. The man was cooperative and, after the officer explained the relevant laws, the man understood that what he did was wrong. He accepted responsibility for his actions and paid the $1,500 fine.

NOAA encourages the public to view sea turtles and monk seals responsibly.

“Stay behind any barriers or signs and follow the ‘rule of thumb’ to determine how much space to give monk seals,” Kurtz says, referring to the practice of making a “thumbs-up” gesture and extending your arm out straight in front of you, with your thumb parallel to the ground. If your thumb covers the entire seal, you are far enough away.

“I’d also remind people that whether you post such videos or not, others are watching,” says Hawaiian monk seal researcher Mark Sullivan, referring to residents in Hawaiʻi who actively care for their resources and will report inappropriate behavior towards wildlife. “Harassing wildlife is very unpopular nowadays, so when in doubt, just leave the animal be.”

Story by Joseph Bennington-Castro, PIRO Science Writer

Hurricane Preparedness

Aloha volunteers,
    Starting today, due to unstable weather and possible flooding, we will NOT respond to regular seal haul-outs. Please prepare for the oncoming tropical storm and possible hurricane and stay safe!!  We thank you for your commitment to care for our seals. We will consider with NOAA supervision, case by case emergency responses, but always human safety comes first.
Mimi, Jamie and Mary W.