Hawaiian monk seal. (Photo: Dave Fleetham/Getty Images)

It Takes a Village to Save a Monk Seal

As the critically endangered marine mammal returns to its ancestral home on now-populated Hawaiian islands, biologists are relying on everyday citizens to help rescue the monk seal from abandoned fishing nets and other deadly threats.
Apr 22, 2015· 7 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

KAHUKU, Hawaii—One of the world’s rarest marine mammals is surprisingly easy to find.

I stroll down the beach from the secluded Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore, past a golf course, until I reach a small sandy inlet peppered with seal-size rocks. One of those rocks is a Hawaiian monk seal. The adjacent small boulder is her two-week-old pup. The gray slab-sided seal and her fuzzy jet-black offspring lie motionless, snoozing in the March sun as the surf washes over them. I might have passed by without a glance if not for a mesh fence roping off the beach and two rather determined volunteer conservationists patrolling the perimeter, gently but firmly asking selfie-taking tourists to speak sotto voce and keep their distance.

There’s good reason for the vigilance. I happen to be looking at 0.2 percent of the planet’s entire population of the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal. This particular seal is officially known as R5AY, the designation imprinted on the red tag biologists attached to her flipper more than a decade ago. But most people just call her Honey Girl. This mama is not just any monk seal. The 20-something-year-old pinniped has so far produced nine pups, single-handedly adding nearly a percentage point to a population of 1,100 seals that is declining by about 3 percent a year in most of its habitat.

Video: Honey Girl and her pup.

“She’s kind of a super mom,” says Stacie Robinson, an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s monk seal research program, as the seals doze. “Every individual counts, and pups are especially precious.”

Honey Girl is more than a successful mother. The life story of this monk seal is a tale of surviving the crises afflicting oceans choking on carbon, plastic, and abandoned fishing nets.

As if on cue, Honey Girl rouses from her slumber to flop a flipper in our direction. She is, as NOAA biologist Tracy Wurth puts it, “ginormous,” ballooning to 600 pounds when pregnant. The pup, resting on her mother’s body, opens her big black eyes and occasionally raises her whiskered face to yawn and let out a high-pitched bark. Then she rolls off into the sand, kicking her flippers in the air as the crowd lining the fence oohs and aahs. She is, after all, hecka cute.

Mother and daughter. (Photo: Paul Robles)

Hawaiian monk seals put the charisma in “charismatic megafauna,” what biologists call critters whose puppy-dog adorability elicits an emotional response in humans. That doesn’t just sell stuffed monk seal toys—it could well be the key to saving the species.

Migrating Monk Seals

Before the early 1990s, you almost never would have stumbled across a monk seal on Oahu, Kauai, or any of the other major Hawaiian islands. They were likely hunted to extinction not long after Polynesian settlers arrived a millennia ago. “You can imagine this huge pile of meat basking in the sun on the beach was an easy target,” says Robinson.

The seals survived, though, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a remote and uninhabited archipelago of atolls and islets that stretches for 1,200 miles beyond Kauai. Yet monk seal numbers have been steadily falling for the past 60 years, according to NOAA.

Then, in the 1990s, monk seals began appearing on the main islands of Hawaii. When Honey Girl showed up on Kauai—the main island closest to the archipelago—in the early aughts, she did not bear a flipper tag, according to Wurth. But she was adult-size, and biologists pegged her age at around five years old. Whether she had migrated from the atolls is unknown, but she did arrive on Kauai with a fishhook embedded in her lip.

A Hawaiian monk seal hauled out on a large net at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. (Photo: Courtesy NOAA)

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands serve as the planet’s Dumpster for abandoned fishing gear—called “ghost nets”—and plastic trash. The archipelago sits smack in the middle of ocean currents that circulate untold tons of marine debris from around the world. Last year a NOAA crew removed 57 tons of fishing nets and debris from the water surrounding the islands during a 33-day mission. Other staffers disentangled 50 monk seal pups from fishing lines during an expedition to the islands.

“Hawaiian monk seals have one of the highest documented entanglement rates of any pinniped species,” NOAA researchers stated in a report. “Marine debris and derelict fishing gear are chronic forms of pollution affecting monk seal habitat.”

If Honey Girl came from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, she would have faced more perils in paradise—such as sharks. An atoll called French Frigate Shoals was once the biggest monk seal breeding ground. Then Galápagos sharks learned how to snatch pups off the beach. “They shimmy right up in the shallows and pull pups right out of the surf,” says Robinson. “Sharks are taking up to 25 percent of the pups born each year.”

Those baby monk seals that don’t become shark chow face a challenge finding sufficient food of their own. Seals are not picky eaters—they like crab, shrimp, squid, octopus, eel, lobster, and a smorgasbord of fish—and the archipelago is now part of a marine preserve off-limits to commercial fishing. Still, emaciated pups continue to turn up on beaches.

Hawaiian monk seal caught in fishing line. (Photo: Facebook)

What’s to blame? Scientists have not pinpointed any one cause but float a few theories: competition with other predators, cyclical weather patterns, and climate change warming the oceans and reducing the food supply.

Sea-level rise owing to climate change also poses a threat to the monk seals. “Some of the beaches that the seals pup on and haul out on in the Northwestern Islands are only maybe a meter above sea level,” says Robinson. “So sea-level rise is certainly a concern, given the potential disappearance of those beaches.”

Honey Girl, meanwhile, seemed to be thriving in the main Hawaiian Islands. By late 2012, she had given birth to seven pups and had moved on to the North Shore of Oahu. Then one day, kayakers spotted a “green” seal floating off Kahuku. A couple of weeks later, someone else reported a green seal on the beach near the Kahuku golf course. A volunteer found the seal and checked its tag. It was Honey Girl. The once “ginormous” seal was emaciated and covered in green algae, a hook protruding from her lip. Her tongue was nearly severed—likely by fishing line—and blood was pouring from her mouth. By the time NOAA biologists got to the scene, she was gone, only to come ashore a few day later on Sunset Beach, a nearby famed surf spot, where she was captured.

“She was a skeleton. She looked horrible,” says Wurth. “She had spent a lot of time floating in the water.”

A surgeon repaired Honey Girl’s tongue, and after a few weeks in rehab the monk seal returned to the wild. “She’s survived to produce two more female pups, and we hope she continues to give us offspring and continue the monk seals,” Wurth says. “If we can get to the seals in time, we have a chance of saving them.”

Saving an Endangered Species on Facebook

Though the seals freely roam the ocean, the species is intensely monitored and managed. (Updates on individual seals’ comings and goings appear on the monk seal Facebook page.) NOAA biologists routinely intervene to untangle seals from fishing nets, treat wounds, relocate pups to improve their odds of survival, and even cut umbilical cords from newborns. (Last year, California’s Marine Mammal Center opened a monk seal hospital on the Big Island of Hawaii.) A 2014 report found that about a quarter of the population in 2012 was alive because of 885 interventions since 1980. The actions saved either those seals or their ancestors.

(Photo: Melissa Tse/Getty Images)

Such micromanagement is rare but not unheard of—to keep the California condor from going extinct, biologists hand-reared North America’s largest bird in captivity and have carefully controlled its reintroduction into the wild. Your average Californian, though, is not going to get anywhere close to condors, which fly high over remote parts of the state. If you’re lucky, you might see one soaring along the oceanside cliffs in Big Sur.

Not so in Hawaii. Over the past decade, the number of seals in the main islands has jumped from 77 to nearly 200, and they’re thriving. The population is growing at a 5.2 percent clip annually, and twice as many pups survive to their first birthday as those on some Northwestern Islands, according to Robinson.

So on your next Hawaiian vacation, you might meet Rocky, a monk seal that frequents a beach near the tourist hot spot of Waikiki in Honolulu. As the population increases and interactions with humans grow, biologists are relying on citizens and hundreds of volunteers from the nonprofit Monk Seal Foundation to report monk seal sightings and animals in need of rescue. NOAA staffers also post photos of monk seals in trouble on Facebook, asking for the public’s help in locating them.

“There’s a lot of really hard-core seal lovers,” says Robinson. “They have their routes near where they live, and they check on beaches every day and let us know what seals have hauled out. They’ll put signs in the sand and rope off a seal that’s sleeping on the beach.”

Now monk seals have another ally: surfers.

Stoked About Monk Seals

When NOAA biologists set sail for the Northwestern Islands in May, on board will be Kahi Pacarro, a surfer and the founder of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, a nonprofit that organizes beach party–style cleanups of plastic trash. “They’re interested in me teaching their staff how to effectively clean a beach and catalog the trash to create data that can inspire change as well as identify recyclable parts of the debris that’s coming in,” Pacarro says.

Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii supplies marine plastic to Method, maker of eco-friendly cleaning supplies, which recycles the trash into liquid-soap bottles. Pacarro is also working with Bureo, a company founded by surfers that turns fishing nets into skateboards. “This plastic is right here at our front door, killing monk seals, sea turtles, and other animals,” he says.

Robinson hopes the data Pacarro collects will persuade policy makers to pay for more expeditions to clean up ghost nets. The scientists want to spread the word about monk seals through Sustainable Coastlines’ grassroots network of young surfers, sailors, and beachgoers. “The monk seal program is getting all hipster with the upcycled marine debris,” she says with a laugh.

Not all have welcomed monk seals or the volunteers that cordon off beaches when the animals are present—which can range from a daylong siesta to five or six weeks if a pup is being weaned. Some fishers see the seals as competition, and a spate of monk seal murders made the cover of The New York Times Magazine two years ago.

Main island monk seals face other challenges. A 2014 study found significantly higher levels of PCBs and other toxic chemicals in the bodies of Oahu seals compared with their country cousins. The seals also risk contracting toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection transmitted by the feces of feral cats. On April 9, for instance, the monk seal Facebook page announced that a female, RB24—nicknamed Ha’upu by volunteers—had died of the disease, prompting an outpouring of condolences.

But there was also good news to report. Last week, several pups were born on Kauai, Oahu, and Molokai. What about Honey Girl’s newborn pup that I saw in March? Last Thursday, she became the first weaned pup of the year on Oahu. A Facebook photo liked by 176 fans shows that she is now pleasantly plump, wearing a sleek new gray fur coat and sporting flipper bling—a red tag with her new name: RG03.

Read more about the fight to save the world's oceans in our "Blue Planet" series.