It is always fun to be walking along a Kauai beach and discover a Hawaiian monk seal sunning on the sand. Residents are very protective of Hawaii’s state mammal because they are one of the only two remaining monk seal species on Earth and their habitat is limited to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the main Hawaiian Islands, especially Kauai, Oahu and Molokai.
The Hawaiian monk seal is the only seal native to Hawaii, and, along with the Hawaiian hoary bat, is one of only two mammals endemic to the islands. They are on the endangered species list with a total population of approximately 1,400. The bad news is that the larger population that inhabits the northwest islands is declining. The good news is that over recent years the number of pups born in the Hawaiian chain has slightly increased.
Hawaiian monk seals spend most of their time at sea foraging in deeper water outside of shallow lagoon reefs. They hunt fish, lobster, octopus and squid in deep water coral beds. Tiger sharks, great white sharks and Galapagos sharks are their predators. To rest and breed they move onto the sand and volcanic rock. This is when we humans get the chance to observe them.
Sandy beaches are also used for pupping. Females reach maturity at age four and bear one pup a year. Births occur between March and June. Mother monk seals are dedicated to their pups and remain with them for the first five or six weeks of their lives. The pups nurse but the mothers don’t eat anything during this time consequently losing hundreds of pounds. Once the pup is weened, the mother deserts the pup, leaving it on its own, and returns to the sea to forage for the first time since the pup’s arrival. Following is a video reflecting just how protective a mother monk seal can be when confronted by an intruder.
The Hawaiian monk seal is named for its solitary nature and the folds of skin that resemble a monk’s cowl. Hawaiians call the seal “Ilio holo I ka uaua” which means, “dog that runs in rough water.” Other names are “na mea hulu” (the furry one) and “iliokai” (seadog). Monk seals grow to about 7.5 feet and 375 to 610 pounds. Females are generally larger than males. Their average life span in the wild is 25 to 30 years.
The Hawaiian monk seal was officially designated as an endangered species on November 23, 1976 and is now protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is illegal to kill, capture or harass a Hawaiian monk seal. When one hauls-out on the beach volunteers around Kauai generally put up a tape barrier so that onlookers will not get too close. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Association recommends keeping a distance of 150 feet, allowing the seal to remain undisturbed. So, please, if you are lucky enough to spot one of these treasures while visiting Kauai, give it ample space. The species depends on our diligent protection.
For more information about the Hawaiian monk seals, go to the Marine Mammal Center website.
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Hawaiian monk seal on the beach in Kapaa.