Following the Song of the Seal

An Artistic Field Study of the Hawaiian Monk Seal

Purpose of study:  to observe and photograph the rare monk seals in their natural habitat and create art from the study to help promote awareness of this endangered species.


In an island world in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are found the only tropical seals left in the world, the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal.  Historically and currently, these seals have been isolated in their primary habitat of the northern reaches of the Hawaiian Archipelago, starting with the main islands of Kauai and Ohau and ending at Kune atoll past Midway Island.  There are only about 1400 of these marine mammals in existence today, and approximately 40 make Kauai their home base.

For this artistic field study of the monk seal, “celebrating the species” is the approach I take in drawing attention to the efforts and successes of people working hard on behalf of the endangered animals, and the positive results from their efforts.  True heroes, they are fully committed to protecting endangered wildlife and helping to perpetuate their numbers, and in the case of the monk seals they are succeeding as numbers are increasing.

From the Hawaii fisheries department of NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the Kauai Marine Mammal Response team are NOAA personnel Jamie Thomton and Gary Langley, and marine mammals response field coordinator Mimi Olry, all key to the success of this field study.  Their generous assistance and guidance enabled me to observe and record the rare mammals for the purpose of creating art inspired by this unique theater of nature.

It’s just another day in paradise, as three monk seals slumber well apart on this isolated beach.  Unlike most seals, monks do not haul out in groups, but are more solitary in their habits.

A beautiful morning of blue sea and sky finds me clambering over huge lava boulders to the edge of an abrupt cliff dropping off to white sands and the sea.  From here the beach meanders for a long mile until it ends at another escarpment of ancient lava flows, and while I marvel over the scene, albatrosses soar just above my head like sea gulls on steroids.  As a key part of this artistic field study and for likely observations of the Hawaiian Monk Seals, Gary Langley of NOAA has invited me to hike this beach with him, which he monitors almost daily, and when he arrives, we make our way down the rough path to the sand below.

Impressions made in the sand by seals dragging their marine bodies onto the shoreline are the first signs of seal activity we come across.  Gary explains that they are from the day before, as they feed at night and take their siestas under the warm afternoon sun.  As the excitement of our search builds, we round a corner of rock outcroppings and come upon our first monk seal.   Gary surmises that he is likely from another area of the islands further away, as he is more nervous as we approach, glancing up at us often and shuffling around.  The regulars on this beach would just sleep in their sand wallows and ignore us, and we soon see that this is also the case, as we spy two more slumbering further down the same stretch of beach. One is quite large, as they can be seven feet long and weigh 450 pounds.

On an island limited in size like Kauai, nothing is really remote or isolated by distance, but there are many idyllic locations isolated by rugged terrain, inaccessible topography and jungle growth.  This long beach favored by the monk seals was thusly isolated and somewhat difficult to access.  After a comprehensive discourse from Gary on the numbers, identities, and birthing successes of seals frequenting this beach which is on his daily “beat”, I asked about the neighboring land, which was a wide plateau, open and flat, bordered by brush and tree lines.

“Does Zuckerberg know about the monk seals hauling out on this beach on a regular basis, and the need for extra protection here?” I asked.

“Oh yes, I have talked to Mark, and I communicate with his security teams from time to time,” Gary replied.  “I also have clearance for tending to the albatross chicks and their rookeries, which are up on his property.”

This mile long white sand beach is broken up in a few places by black lava rock strew out into the sea, and yes, 200 acres of the inland  plateau adjoining the sand is owned by the facebook king.  Scattered along the edge of his land were user friendly white signs with soft blue lettering appealing to the public with the script “Private Property, thank you for not trespassing,” rather than the more abrupt generic red or black warning signs commonly seen elsewhere.  Regardless of any adjoining private land, the beach is completely open to the public, as are all beaches in Hawaii.

We continued on, around more lava rocks to an idyllic lagoon of aqua green water shadowed with dark shoals, and spy a green sea turtle dug into the sand.  It gets a little nervous as we watch, then the surprise treat of the day unfolded; a monk seal came swimming through the shoals like a black torpedo and zeroed in on the sea turtles stretch of sand.  Incredibly, it swims close to where we are standing and begins squirming onto the sand.  He has decided to haul out right here, next to the turtle.  Meanwhile, the turtle decides he’s had enough and backs out, heading backwards into the water.  The seal continues humping his way up the sandy slope, the turtle hits the water and bobs around awhile.  When the seal scoots into his chosen spot, the turtle changes his mind, hits the beach once again, and shuffles his way back to his very same spot of sand.

By now the monk seal has proceeded to dig his head into the sand, scruffing and shaking to relieve the sea lice, fleas and other personal pests.  This is a typical comforting procedure the seals often carry out.  With some relaxing shrugs and flaps, both animals give in to the heat of the sun and call it a day.  We had watched this interaction of nature, which was the highlight of my field study, from a relatively close distance and were mostly ignored the entire time.

Hawaiian Monk Seal

Many of the seals are scarred by repeated shark bites, and though the tiger shark is their worst nightmare, most of the scars are from smaller sharks found a thousand feet down that nip off flesh when the monks dive down to feed.  If you are a Hawaiian monk seal, the struggle for survival is precarious even without the extra complications posed by humans.  Males fighting over a single female in their breeding season sometimes results in the death of the female.  This action, called “mobbing” will actually target the female.  No female, no new pups.

Monk tucked into the lava rocks.

After a full mile of this shoreline, we have also passed a scattering of nude sunbathers [human], a laysan albatross rookery with a group of grounded adult birds back in the brush line, and fantastic sandstone and basalt rock formations.  Lounging half in tide water while laying against low shelves of black lava rock is another monk seal, and even though his coat is gray, he is well disguised tucked in the crevices of the once molten magma.

We finally work our way out to a high cliff edge of volcanic rock wedging its way into the ocean, complete with an arched tunnel boiling with sea currents and waves.  The arch is our destination, and what a sight it is!  We can see a light house far up the coast fronted by a small island , which is the furthest point north of all the main Hawaiian Islands.  The volcanic rock under out feet was the last lava action of all of Kauai, sputtering out eons ago.

Within a mile out to sea beyond the arch, the humpback whales begin to frolic, and we finish the afternoon perched on volcanic boulders overlooking the arch and watch the humpbacks breaching and blowing over and over again.

*                        *                                  *                               *                       *

The day after my field study with Gary, he was involved in a rescue team to remove a seal from a canal in a populated area of Kauai.  This canal poses various problems for the monks, as they are drawn to fish scraps routinely discarded by local fishermen and risk entanglement in fishing gear, and at least two have been known to drown there.  It’s hard to imagine these adept sea mammals drowning, but entanglement in fishing nets can result in their demise.

Co-mingling is okay at this busy, mainstream  beach park, with yellow ribbons and warning signs staking out the seal’s space.  Another monk seal rests on the sand spit in the distance.

These solitary seals have no fear of humans and will haul out on beaches crowded with people.  Volunteers will stake out a “no go zone” perimeter around the seals with signs stuck into the sand, and the animals will snooze away unmolested by the crowds.  Since it blocks their escape route, walking between the seals and the water can make them nervous, and they have been known to nip at people.

On one occasion, I watched at a crowded beach as young man wandered through the seals private “box” and waded in the surf, oblivious to the wild sea mammal sprawled at his feet.  The diligent volunteer, an elderly lady, immediately shooed him away like a mother hen in a barnyard and pointed out the yellow ribbons he had stumbled through.  The fellow was very surprised and apologized profusely over his blunder.

Sharing the beaches.

Why is this important, these field personnel working with and watching over these marine mammals every day?  Once the Caribbean Sea had a balance of monk seals that were an integral part of nature in an aquatic world dotted with tropical isles.  No more.  The Mediterranean Monk Seal numbers are less than 400, although another colony has been discovered and kept top secret to help their chance of survival.  That leaves the seals inhabiting Hawaii for millions of years as the best chance for monk seals to continue existing on our planet.

Where on earth?!  Kauai, Hawaii, March, 2017

Photos and drawing by the author

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