Local studying marine life in Hawaii

Boyne Falls resident Amber Simon shares her research on the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal at the University of Hawaii in Maui

By: Amber Simon, Student Contributor

Editor’s Note: Boyne Falls resident, Amber Simon, is in her second semester of the school year she has decided to spend at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College. While attending UH Maui College, Amber has been working on a Marine Option Program certificate, as well as learning about the ocean from a hands-on point of view. The school year has allowed Amber to have as close as legally possible encounters with humpback whales, green sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, and other marine related experiences. She has also taken classes on the culture of the Hawaiian Islands, such as Maui Aloha ‘A’ina and Hawaiian Field Studies. Amber is glad for the experiences she’s had while studying in a place as far from home while still being in the United States.

Boyne Falls resident Amber Simon is pictured off the Hawaiian Islands where she is studying marine life through the University of Hawaii in Maui

Critically Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals
Humpback whales and dolphins are not the only marine mammals swimming in Hawaiian waters. The Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) is the oldest living, ‘true’ tropical seal, having come from the Caribbean ancestor. Although they are the oldest surviving species, scientists speculate that the Hawaiian monk seal may not last much longer than 50 to 100 more years. Currently there are only 1,100 seals left in Hawai‘i; the monk seal is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world.

The “monk” in Hawaiian monk seal is thought to come from the soft folds of fur around the head which looks similar to a monk’s hood and are solitary animals. The Hawaiian name for the monk seal is ‘Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua, translating into ‘dog running in the rough seas’.

Hawaiian monk seal numbers continue to decline due to predation, starvation, loss of habitat, exposure to disease, and human activities. Overfishing is leaving the monk seals with very little for them to consume and some have been found to have starved to death. Entanglement in marine debris has left scarring on some and has cost others their lives. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where most of seal pups are born, raised and weaned, Galapagos sharks have learned to attack the pups after the mother leaves them. Other monk seals have met death when humans have purposefully killed them because they believe them to be a threat to their fish catch.  In January of this year, three Hawaiian monk seals were murdered on Molokai and Kauai. A recovery plan is in effect for the protection of these critically endangered species; it is discouraging when the animal that is trying to be saved can be the cause of its own destruction. Male seals have been known to be extremely aggressive towards the females and have been known to cause life-threatening injuries to them, as well as other males. A 400-pound male seal, named KE18 was captured at Mid-Way Atoll for killing two seals and wounding 11, most of them being pups. Instead of euthanizing the seal as planned, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) rescued him and flew him to Oahu live his life at the Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu.

R017 is a 500 pound, 12 year old female. She last gave birth in April 2011 and has been documented on west Maui, Lana‘i, and Oahu. R017 is identified by a cookie-cutter scar and a temporary bleach mark N5 on her right side, and a natural bleach mark on her left side. R017 hauled out on mile mark 14 of Honoapiilani Highway around Olowalu Beach on the island of Maui. (Photo:A. Simon)

The Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund coordinates research for the better protection of the Hawaiian monk seals. One type of research to track the seals is by bleaching distinguishing numbers on their sides, such as N5; if the seal with the marking is spotted, they can be identified and called in to match up with the coordinated names given to the seal, such as KE18. Not all seals are marked and those need to be identified by their natural birth marks or scars.

When a Hawaiian monk seal gives birth, the mother is fat and healthy and as the pup grows off of the mother’s milk. The mother goes from her healthy 400 to 600 pounds to the point where her ribs can be seen and looks starved as the mother does not eat while nursing. The nursing time is between 5 to 6 weeks and the pup is born between 11 to 15 kg and the weaning weight is 50 to 80 kg. A female monk seal reaches sexual maturity between 5 and 9 years of age. Sometimes, pups are exchanged between females and can become separated and be weaned too early. The average life span of a seal is between 25 and 30 years. They feed off shore on bottom-dwelling and reef fish, eel, octopus, squid and crustaceans and have been seen to be diving at depths of up to 1800 feet. They can spend a month in the ocean and spend about a third of their time on shore.

Hawaiian monk seals haul out onto beaches to give birth, molt, and rest. Whenever one is found lying on the beach, human interactions should be kept at a minimal for both the seal’s and human’s protection. Monk seals have been known to be aggressive when harassed and can bite; humans need to stay at least 150 feet away from a seal as well as being quiet so as not to disturb their sleep. The distance should be increased if encountering a mother and pup. Dogs need to be leashed and away from the seals as they can contract life-threatening diseases from them.   Any harassment or disturbance of a Hawaiian Monk Seal can lead to fines of up to $25,000 or more and up to 5 years in prison as it is a federal crime. Humans need to keep their distance from the seals and let sleeping seals lie. A monk seal may approach swimmers and surfers out of curiosity, but will back off to avoid interaction.

Hawaiian monk seals are one of the world’s most endangered marine mammal and need to be protected, their numbers are decreasing at a rate of about 4% every year and like every other endangered species, humans are the cause for their endangerment, but can also be the ones that save the species. There are many foundations that support the protection of the Hawaiian monk seal and more information on them can be found at their websites.

Monk Seal Foundation: www.MonkSealFoundation.org

Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund: http://wildhawaii.org/marinelife/seals.html

NOAA: http://www.fpir.noaa.gov/PRD/prd_hawaiian_monk_seal.html

Leave a Reply