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To the casual beachgoer in Hawaii, one Hawaiian monk seal can look just like the next. What appears to be a male monk seal could be a female, and a “mother and baby” pair may actually be juvenile and a newly-weaned pup tumbling in the shore break. Such mistakes are common in the calls to our hotline.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 4.47.31 PMBut when someone calls our hotline to report a seal on Kaua‘i that “has something around its neck,” the seal almost always turns out to be a familiar female known as RK30. If there’s one seal that represents the challenges a monk seal faces in her lifetime, it’s RK30. She is the “poster seal” of monk seal threats.

RK30 first made her presence known in a dramatic way, and she hasn’t stopped, hauling out on virtually every beach around Kaua‘i in the more than 18 years since we first spotted her, even pushing through throngs of people in the water and onshore to find a place to rest at busy sites along the South Shore and East Side.

It all started in 2005 when she was first identified by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and it was that “thing around her neck” that got everyone’s attention. It was suspected to be entanglement with a piece of thick line. This was in the early days of these kinds of responses in the Main Hawaiian Islands, and a team gathered and boated to a remote beach along Nā Pali Coast. But RK30 wanted nothing to do with their help. She was already a strong, powerful adult, and she quickly evaded our team.

Luckily, our vet at the time, Dr. Bob Braun, was able to get a good look at RK30 and positively confirm that she had been entangled, but—here’s the good news—that she’d already freed herself of the entanglement. It took a while for her to shake loose of the rope, as evidenced by the remaining, dramatic scar. It suggests the line had been around RK30’s neck for some time—long enough to leave a permanent indentation around her neck that, upon first glance, still looks like she’s entangled today. Luckily, RK30 slipped her noose before a deadly infection could set in and kill her.

Looking back, this was our first sign that RK30 is the extreme survivor she’s turned out to be, because the entanglement scar isn’t her only indication of a brush with death. In addition, she has boat propeller scars on her belly and a large scar on her left side from a possible encounter with a large shark. On top of all that, she has a constellation of 13 cookie-cutter shark bite scars on her body.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 4.47.19 PMRK30’s skill at evading death has helped her species in significant ways—primarily, by adding to the species. To our knowledge, RK30 has birthed at least nine pups. Unfortunately, not all her offspring have survived the way she has. One was lost as a very young pup when a late-season swell washed it out to sea. Another died as a juvenile after ingesting a fishing hook. Her oldest known living offspring is RW06, a female, regularly seen along Kaua‘i’s South Shore and nearing reproductive age.

RK30 was pregnant with another pup (RH38) in 2016 when she was harassed by a man while she was resting out at the ocean’s edge. The man—with a long list of other run-ins with the law—was eventually sentenced to four years in prison by Hawai‘i’s Environmental Court. This was the first conviction under the state’s felony endangered species harassment statue, legislation that was initiated by a few stalwart monk seal supporters and introduced by then-Senator, Gary Hooser in 2010 after a spate of intentional killings of monk seals. A few days after RK30’s encounter with the intoxicated man, she gave birth to a healthy RH38 at one of her regular pupping sites along Nā Pali Coast. And she gave birth to another pup in 2017.

During the more than 13 years we’ve tracked RK30 around Kaua‘i, she’s exhibited some unique behaviors. As tolerant as she generally appears to be around humans, she is no pushover. She’ll bark and lunge at those humans who agitate her. She’s also been witnessed logging just offshore in shallow, calm waters. Too, we’ve received frequent reports of her associating with Green sea turtles—pushing them around, flipping the in the air, gnawing at them. But no reports of her killing or eating one.

We have no doubt that monk seals will continue to surprise us in the future. We just hope it’s not RK30. She’s made enough headlines, although we’d be happy to see her pass on her genes to a half-dozen more or so pups in the remainder of her years.

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