Though our most famous marine mammal here on Maui is the gigantic, friendly, acrobatic Humpback Whale - and for good reason- we are also so lucky to have many other marine mammals frequent our shores here in the Hawaiian Islands. Some of these marine mammals are endemic, meaning that they are found nowhere else in the world. The Hawaiian monk seal is our state mammal, native and found only here in Hawaiian waters. Heartbreakingly, it is extremely rare, with only an estimated 1100 individuals left in the entire population. The Hawaiian monk seal is in the same family as the Caribbean and Mediterranean monk seal species. The Mediterranean monk seal is critically endangered, with fewer than 600 individuals surviving in a few pockets from a species that used to exist throughout the entire Mediterranean and along the northwest coast of Africa. The Caribbean monk seal is extinct as of 1952, from over hunting and over fishing of its native waters of the Caribbean Sea.
It is our kokua to protect this graceful, adorable seal that represents our islands and plays in our waters. However, Hawaiian monk seals face many threats and misunderstandings. Though the majority of the population of Hawaiian monk seals live in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, an increasing amount have been seen in the Main Hawaiian Islands, possibly due to food limitation and habitat loss due to sea level rise in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Though this makes it easier for us to see these animals, it does present a whole new set of threats to this already endangered marine mammal.
Monk seals in the Main Hawaiian Islands face many human- induced threats. These include entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris, disturbance and harassment at their resting sites on beaches, intentional feeding that causes habituation to humans and most disturbingly, intentional killings. Unfortunately, there is the perception by some locals that Hawaiian monk seals do not belong in the Islands, and are blamed for stealing fish and profits from fishermen.
In order to be a part of the effort to quantify and protect these critically endangered seals, Trilogy sent a representative to be a part of NOAA’s semi-annual Hawaiian Monk Seal Count. This event trains interested members of the community into citizen scientists, who on the morning of May 16th canvassed all public access beaches of all islands except for Kaho’olawe and Ni’ihau to count monk seals sighted on beaches or swimming nearshore.
The numbers are in- there were 38 total monk seals spotted in the Count this year on all Main Hawaiian Islands. Per island, there were the most seals spotted on Moloka’i with 15, followed by Kaua’i with 13, Oahu with 9 and Maui with only 1 seal spotted, near the Ahihi Kinau Natural Area Reserve. There were no seals spotted on May 16th on Lana’i or the Big Island. Of course, this count does not survey the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands or the ocean further offshore and so it’s not a full census of the population, though this count can show trends and help find remote resting locations and injured individual seals.
Want to help out? NOAA wants to hear about any and all Hawaiian monk seal sightings. If you’re out on a snorkel, surfing your favorite break, or strolling the beach and happen to see a monk seal, report it to the Maui Nui Seal Sighting Hotline: 808-292-2372808-292-2372.
If you’re lucky enough to view one, remember to not approach Hawaiian monk seals closer than a recommended 150 feet, both to not disturb them and also for your own safety, since solitary monk seal juveniles are sometimes known to try and “play” with humans nearby, and mother seals will naturally be defensive of their pup. To be a good neighbor, don’t feed seals or discard fishing scraps or bait into the water, so that they are not habituated to getting food from humans.
For a chance to see one of these endangered mammals in the wild, join us on a snorkel- you never know where we may spot one! We’ve been excited to have spotted monk seals off Lana’i, Olowalu and West Maui lately!
To learn more, check out this fun video about co-existing with monk seals. To be a part of NOAA’s next Hawaiian Monk Seal Count or to sign up as a volunteer, check out http://www.fpir.noaa.gov/PRD/prd_hms_you_can_help.html.