Living in Hawaii we are lucky to have the opportunity to observe wild animals in their natural habitat. Sharks, whales, turtles and one of the rarest animals on the planet - Hawaiian monk seals.
Monk seals are the oldest species of seals alive today and are often referred to as living fossils. They are one of the most endangered animals in the world and are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In addition, the Hawaiian monk seal is endemic to Hawaii, meaning this animal is found nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately, there are only an estimated 1,100 of these magnificent mammals left in the Hawaiian Islands.
An adult monk seal will weight 400 to 600 pounds. They get their common name “monk” seal because they live mainly a solitary life.
If you have seen one of these rare animals, you may have wondered why you usually only see one seal at a time. They get their common name "monk" seal because they live mainly a solitary life. This is a difference between them and other seal species, but also a difference between them and sea lions. Seals are not sea lions. True seals do not have an external ear flap, and they cannot rotate their hind flippers underneath their body to walk on land. Monk seals belong to the pinniped family and are the only seal species found in tropical waters.
As adults, monk seals will weigh 400 to 600 pounds and measure 6 to 8 feet long. Adults typically eat between 3 to 8 percent of their body weight per day feeding on animals such as pufferfish, eels, squid, octopus and crustaceans. Their large eyes help them to see and feed at night, and they can forage as deep as 1,500 feet. Any excess fat female seals gain will be stored for periods when they do not eat like when weaning their pups.
Monk seals hunt primarily at night so if you do get the chance to see this animal it will most likely be hauled out on the beach resting. When people see seals laying on the beach, they may be concerned that it is sick or injured, but this is completely normal seal behavior.
Since they are there to rest, it is important to remember a few things when viewing them: stay 150 feet away and keep your voice low. They have an acute sense of hearing so we don't want to disturb their rest period.
Two major threats to monk seals are human disturbance and human conditioning. We want to make sure they do not become accustomed to interacting with humans. If they get too used to us, they could lose their ability to fend for themselves and could potentially pose a threat to humans if they seek us out for food or play.
Co-existing with wild animals, such as monk seals, is an amazing privilege we have here in Hawaii. We are at a crucial stage in the conservation of this animal. By doing our part to keep these wild animals wild we can give them the opportunity to survive and allow future generations the chance to see these living fossils in their natural environment.
* Eden Zang is an ocean naturalist and aquarist in the education and curatorial departments at the Maui Ocean Center. "Ka Mo'olelo Moana," or "the Ocean Story," is a monthly column submitted by the Maui Ocean Center, which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.