Spotlight on the Hawaiian Monk Seal

Did you know that the Hawaiian monk seal is the official Hawai’i State Mammal? (not to be confused with the Hawai’i State Marine Mammal, the Humpback Whale)

The Hawaiian Monk Seal

A California Sea Lion

Hawaiian monk seals are “true seals”, not sea lions.  There are three things that define a true seal: their ears, the way they move on land and in the water, and their flippers.  Instead of ear flaps like cats and dogs (and even humans), true seals have a pin hole opening.  In the water, true seals use their back flippers for propulsion (sea lions use their more powerful front flippers).  On land, true seals are slow.  They undulate their bodies like large inch worms instead of using their flippers for “walking” like sea lions do.  The flippers of true seals are small and weak (which is why they don’t use them to “walk on land”.  Make no mistake though, true seals are still fast swimmers!

The Hawaiian monk seal is endemic to Hawai’i, meaning it is only found in the Hawaiian Islands and no where else in the world.  It is also endangered (illegal to harm or harass), with fewer than 1,100 individuals left in the wild.  There are two other species of monk seals: the Mediterranean monk seal and the Caribbean monk seal.  Unfortunately, the last sighting of the Caribbean monk seal was in 1952 and was declared extinct in 2008.  The Mediterranean monk seal is even more endangered than the Hawaiian Monk seal with fewer than 600 individuals left in the wild.

Papahanaumokuakea: the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument

The majority of the population of Hawaiian monk seals reside in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but some make the swim down to the Main Hawaiian Islands and make it their home.

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Information) has been conducting research on Hawaiian monk seals for years.  Some of the potential threats they have identified are: food limitation, marine debris, shark predation, infectious diseases, habitat loss, fishery interactions, male aggression, human interaction, biotoxins, vessel groundings, and other contaminants.

If you happen to see a Hawaiian monk seal in the water or on land, NOAA would like to know!  The agency keeps records of the locations of individual Hawaiian monk seals as part of its research.  Be sure to remember the time and location of the sighting and call:

  • Marine Mammal Stranding/Entanglement Hotline: 1-888-256-9840
  • Hawaiian Monk Seal Sightings Hotline: (808) 220-7802

Sometimes seals are seen entangled in marine debris. This seal has a fish hook in it's mouth. Photo credit, Leslie Merrell, Location: Ka’ena Point, Oahu

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