The Monk Seal babies of Waikiki

I had the privilege of seeing the monk seal pups in Waikiki the past few years. Seeing the young seals being raised by their mom adjacent to some of the most highly used shorelines in Hawai`i shows the challenges and possibilities of living with our native Hawaiian biota.

Hawaiian Monk Seals (Neomonachus schaulinslandi) are known `ilio holo i ka uaua in Hawaiian. It roughly translates to “the dog that runs through water”. It’s a very apt description as they are part of the great caniform radiation of Carnivora. The wider pinnipedia clade is nested somewhere with the bears and weasels. Monk seals themselves are the only true seals normally found in warmer waters, with species in Hawai’i, the Mediterranean and formerly the Caribbean.

Rocky, official designation RH58, caused a sensation back in the Spring of 2021 when she chose Kaimana beach to give birth. She then repeated it when she gave birth again near the previous spot in July 2022.

Looking back at these photos with seals surrounded by human infrastructure makes me curious about what makes a seal choose one particular beach over another to give birth. Rocky has raised plenty of pups, mostly on Kaua`i. What made her choose Kaimana? She chose it two years in a row so it must have been a decent spot. One potential benefit of all the human near shore activities in the main Hawaiian islands is that it depresses the number of sharks around potentially freeing up seal populations from competition and predation on their young.

Having seal pups right in the most densely populated area of O`ahu allowed unprecedented access to the general public. This had its benefits and challenges. On one hand, it was an excellent first hand experience to show people why we fight so hard to save endangered Hawaiian species. We were not just showing pictures to an unengaged public of some animal on a far away atoll they’ll never visit. People could just walk down to the beach, set up shop next to the lifeguard tower and experience it all for themselves. On the other hand are some of the detriments of human-seal interaction. Namely, some people just didn’t care. There were folks that had dogs off-leash; the dogs then harassed the seals. There was also the case of the swimmer who was attacked by the mother seal after being repeatedly told not to swim in that area. In my time there with the baby seals, I would say 99% of the public was engaged and at the very least respectful. Most folks were pleased to be sharing the beach with the seals. It’s that 1% that caused issues. While minor, it’s not zero. When the pups were old enough to fend for themselves both cases DLNR took the step of relocating the pups to remote, safer beaches to minimize negative human-seal interactions.

Part of me really wants to believe that step was an abundance of caution. That these baby seals would have figured out a way to learn how coexist with an adoring public. But there is also a reality that seals have been attacked and killed by people. Not everyone cares about plants and animals like I do, and they have every right to enjoy the beach in their own, ideally legal, way. The current situation is not perfect but at least we have a chance to make this relationship better. Caribbean Monk seals went extinct in the 1950’s. Those communities will never again get a chance to enjoy photos and interactions like this. Let’s do what we can to make this a common, normal occurrence and show the planet how we can live with our native creatures, from as small as a fly to as large as a monk seal.

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