Like a giant baked potato she lays on her back, basking in the midday sun, just inches from the gentle lapping of the Pacific Ocean. At first glance, you may think this Hawaiian monk seal is simply another huge lava rock on the beach, but when the “rock” rolls over, you realize she is a survivor of one of the most endangered seal species on earth. And, as much as you want to investigate further, you know that this rare creature is protected by federal law and the best thing you can do to ensure that she, and others like her, endure and prosper, is leave her alone.
How the monk seal got its name
The ancient Hawaiians called the big brownish-gray seal ‘Ilioholoikauaua, which means “dog that runs in rough water.” Even harder to pronounce is its scientific name Monachus schauinslandi, which comes from Dr. H. Schauinsland who discovered the first seal skull on Laysan Island. From all those tongue-twisters, how did Hawai‘i’s only pinniped (seals, sea lions, and walruses) come to be known as a monk seal?
The name likely came about due to the seal’s short-haired round head, the loose robe-like skin around its neck, and its preference for solitude; thus, someone thought the hulking creature resembled a monk and dubbed the unsuspecting beachgoer a monk seal.
Weighing between 400 and 600 pounds, the monk seal can grow up to seven feet long, with females being larger than males. To propel its blubbery, yet, streamlined body through ocean currents, the seal uses its hind flippers. The front flippers act as stabilizers. Like other pinnipeds, the monk seal is able to significantly slow its heart rate. This enables it to use oxygen so efficiently that it can to dive to depths of 600 feet and stay submerged for 20 minutes without suffering any ill effects.
The decline of the monk seal
There are two other species of monk seals: the Caribbean monk seal, which is now believed to be extinct, and the Mediterranean monk seal, whose numbers, like the Hawaiian monk seal, continue to drop at an alarming rate. The Hawaiian monk seal is one of only two species of mammals that are endemic, or unique, to the Hawaiian Islands, which makes their survival even more important.* The reasons cited for their decline are:
1. Depletion of food sources, (fish, lobster, eel, and octopus)
2. Lack of fear of human predators (they were once easily hunted for their pelts, oil, and food)
3. Capture in fishing nets and lines
4. Shark attacks
5. Poisoning by ciguatera (a disease caused by a toxin present in reef fish)
6. Mobbing (when several aggressive males advance on a female during mating season and inadvertently kill her or younger seals by mistake)
According to The Captive Care and Release Research Project, it is estimated that in 2010, a mere 1100 Hawaiian monk seals remain. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and as public awareness grows, the monk seals may have a fighting chance. On June 11, 2008, Lieutenant Governor James Aiona declared the Hawaiian monk seal Hawai‘i’s official State Mammal. And now, the creation of Papahnaumokukea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands should help contribute to their survival.
So when we discover this gentle, fearless marine mammal lounging on our island beaches, it is our responsibility and privilege to contribute to their future by observing from a distance (100 feet away), protecting them from dogs, and teaching our keiki to respect all of our ocean friends.
To report injured or sick seals, or to report seal harassment, call the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu at 808-983-5715. For more information, visit their web site at www.nmfs.hawaii.edu.
US National Marine Fisheries Service Hawaiian Monk Seal web page:
*The other endemic species is the Hoary bat.