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Na Pali Coast Magazine | October 23, 2017

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The Hawaiian Monk Seal: Survivor of the Sea - Na Pali Coast Magazine

The Hawaiian Monk Seal: Survivor of the Sea

Survivor of the Sea

Seeing Hawaiian monk seals along the Na Pali Coast is always a rare treat. As one of the most endangered species left on the planet, their numbers are dwindling each year with only approximately 1,200 individuals left in the wild.

Even with federal protection their road to recovery is a long one—being that it is a road full of potholes. They are unable to reproduce fast enough to replenish the population, at a sustainable level, as it takes roughly eight years for a female to reach maturity. When the female does give birth the mortality rate for a pup is extremely high due to shark predation, lack of food, habitat loss, and entanglement in derelict fishing gear. Human interaction is also a problem as more pups are born in the main Hawaiian Islands at popular beach areas. So, many obstacles to survival clearly show their extinction is inevitable.

For those who do survive against all of these odds, a life of leisure seems to be the case—or so it seems at first. We often spot the Hawaiian monk seal basking on the beach and looking so very sleepy and mild-mannered. But the seals are actually taking an important “nap” and are not to be disturbed. They are restoring the critical energy they will need to hunt for food later on—to keep them alive.

For these survivors of the sea, extreme intelligence is key. They are smart, top of their class, and never to be underestimated. With the energy of puppy dogs, and the grace and speed of ballerinas in the sea, they are able to conquer the challenges of the ocean.

When I do occasional scuba dives at the island of Ni‘ihau, there is a monk seal who acts as the “welcoming committee” for me every time I arrive.  First, it shows me where the mooring is to tie my boat to, and then it escorts me along the reef of Lehua Rock. It spins around periodically to make sure I have not fallen too far behind, and gives me the eye contact or “eye chat” as if to make sure I’m having a good time. Its behavior is so playful, I feel like I should bring an underwater stick with me next time to play some fetch. Honestly, this creature shows so much intelligence in its interactions with me. It swims ahead of me, then stops and watches all of us and then waits for us to catch up before leading us forward. It guides us along steep rock ledges, and through magnificent caverns—one of which has a sandy bottom where the seal will dive down into and rest on the floor like any good dog would do in its own living room. It will even follow us all the way back to the boat, like a protective watch dog protecting its owner—very reassuring to me since I have unfortunately watched too many re-runs of Jaws through the years.