FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT HAWAIIAN MONK SEALS
Volunteers of the Kaua`i Monk Seal Watch Program (KMSWP) spend a great deal of time on Kaua`i's beaches monitoring and protecting seals. Visitors and residents often ask the following questions. Some facts in this section may be repeated or more fully explained on our About the Seals page. Our website pages pertaining to Hawaiian Monk Seal facts are updated annually with the most current data provided by the scientists from The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, Pacific Islands Science Center (NOAA Fisheries), in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Q. The seal looks dead. Is it ? Or is it sick or injured?
A. No -- to all of the above. Hawaiian Monk Seals (HMS) frequently haul out on the beach to rest. They often haul out in the early morning hours and remain throughout the day, reeintering the ocean around sunset. These rest periods are vital to the HMS. They need to regain strength for feeding and defending themselves from predators. This is why you should never approach or disturb seals on the beach. Injured seals will usually exhibit a visible wound and sick seals may appear behaviorally different, and possibly agitated. Molting seals may seem agitated as well, but this is normal annual behavior.
Q. Ive seen so many seals on the beach. Are they really endangered?
A. YES! The Hawaiian Monk Seal is critically endangered. Normal HMS behavior includes hauling out on beaches, and at any given time there may be seven or eight seals resting on their favored south shore beaches. About 40-45 seals frequent Kaua`i's beaches, so you may have seen close to one fourth of the seals that call Kauai home.
Q. How do you tell a male from a female?
A. It can be difficult. Please use binoculars from a
distance. You must get a clear view of the ventral side (underside). Approximately
2/3 of the way down, seals have a navel. Extending up from the rear flippers,
males exhibit a ridge leading to a penile opening before reaching the navel
(belly-button). On females, four teats are visible around the navel, somewhat
resembling the "five" surface on dice.
Q. I saw the mother seal fighting another seal. Was it a male trying to harm or kill the pup?
A. No. Rumors circulated in 2000 during the Po`ipu Beach Park closure that "highly territorial", or "rogue" males would try to harm, or perhaps kill, the nursing pup. This is completely untrue. The males often cruise by seeking out the female. However, mothers do not tolerate males until near weaning, so nursing pups will rarely come into contact with adult males. The observed hostilities were simply the mother fending off aggressive males.
Also, HMS do not have beach territories like some other seals. Instead of defending a portion of the beach, males may defend a single female from other males. A subordinate male that is unable to access an adult female may repeatedly mount and even drown a weaned pup in the wave wash, but this is extremely rare.
Q. Where is the father seal?
A. Somewhere else. Adult males play no part in the care, nursing, or weaning of HMS pups.
Q. The baby looks so tiny next to the mother. How fast does it grow?
A. Remarkably fast. From a birth weight of 25 to 30 pounds, HMS pups grow to an approximate 200 pounds just six weeks later.
Q. How much do they weigh when fully grown?
A. Healthy adult Hawaiian Monk Seals weigh anywhere from 400 to 600+ pounds. Adult females are slightly larger than males.
Q. Does the mother really abandon the pup?
A. Yes. First, however, she nurses the pup for about six weeks without feeding herself. After that time, she leaves the area to resume eating. The pups bulk of almost 200 pounds enables it to survive while learning to feed on its own. The mothers weight and strength are restored over several weeks of feeding and rest.
Q. Is the nursing period always just six weeks?
A. Six weeks is an accurate, but approximate figure. For pups in the main Hawaiian Islands, 42 to 49 days appears typical, but nursing period varies somewhat by location. For instance, both pups born on Kaua`is south shore in the summer of 2000 were weaned , and both mothers departed on day 45. On Laysan Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where scientists have the most data, the average is 39 days.
Q. How often do they have babies? How long is the pregnancy?
A. Marine biologists believe the gestation period is between 10 - 11 months. Females are capable of giving birth in consecutive years (usually about 13 months apart) and, on average, over half the adult females pup each year.
Q. Do they come back to the same place each year to give birth?
A. Quite often they do, but not necessarily. Mothers may tend to pup in the same area if they have had a successful experience there.
Q. What do these seals eat?
A. Prey in the HMS diet includes eels, octopi, lobsters, and bottom and reef fish. Diving lengths average 8 minutes and have been documented up to 20 minutes. Seals are not thought to eat fish in the water column. Seals typically feed on the bottom, in the sand, and under rocks and coral rubble.
Q. How many survive?
A. Nobody knows for certain. Scientific studies in the mid-1980s showed an 85 percent survival of weaned pups the following year. It can vary significantly, however, due to factors such as disease, emaciation, and predation, and has been drastically lower in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in recent years. In Kaua`is waters the prognosis is fairly good. If human disturbance and beach interaction with dogs can be eliminated, some of the threats for the HMS in Kaua`i are boating collisions, entanglement in marine debris, and normal predation (tiger shark).
Q. What about sharks?
A. Tiger sharks, one of the largest in Hawaiian waters, are the significant predator of Hawaiian Monk Seals. Among breeding populations in the atolls, Galapagos sharks are the major problem right now, particularly in pupping areas at French Frigate Shoals. Many adult seals survive shark attacks, as evidenced by scars seen on older animals. The most vulnerable are young seals and seals in poor condition.
Q. Why is it called a monk seal?
A. Two theories, and both are related to the human monk. First, it refers to the uniquely solitary, non-colonizing nature of HMS. Secondly, the excessive skin and fat around the head and neck resembles a monk's hood, or cowl. Both theories are considered acceptable explanations.
Q. Why do HMS look so funny when they move?
A. While supremely agile in the water, most seals look quite clumsy hauling out for rest on land. HMS, in particular, have quite small fore-flippers. Therefore, they don't really maneuver or "walk" on them like other species. HMS tend to undulate forward to move onto land, and frequently roll over to change positions or re-enter the water.
Q. How old is this species?
A. Ancient. However, it is impossible to date their existence specifically because conditions are not favorable for fossils in Hawai`i. The oldest known monk seal fossils, found on the east coast of the U.S., are 14-16 million years old. These fossils are more advanced than the HMS in some ways, so HMS probably split off from their east coast relatives sometime around then or earlier.
Q. What happens if I try to get up next to one?
A. Any harassment or disturbance of an HMS is a federal crime, incurring fines of $25,000 or more and up to 5 years imprisonment.
Q. Can I get any closer to
the seal to get a picture?
A. No. Avoid disturbing seals. Remain well behind any barricades or posted signs. Stay at least 150 feet away if no protection is posted. Take all the pictures you want---quietly, from a distance, and with no flash. Observe all recommended guidelines for viewing.
Q. How do we contribute to
A. Details regarding contributions are available for those supporting KMSWP. We would like you to know that one hundred percent of your donation goes directly to our work protecting HMS. Mahalo nui loa.
Q. Where can I find more detailed HMS population information
A. Please refer to our LINKS page, or link directly to the Federal HMS Recovery Plan.