Field Notes: Hawai‘i Monk Seal Response Team Watches Over Monk Seals While They Sleep
Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vast and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: the Hawaiian monk seal volunteers.
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon
WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE
The Hawaiian monk seal volunteers watch over Hawai‘i’s endangered native seals when they come ashore to sleep, pup or molt. Dressed in “Monk Seal Response Team” T-shirts, they cordon off areas around resting seals to discourage people from sticking cameras in their faces, letting their dogs get too close, or otherwise bothering the animals. They share information about the species with beachgoers. They gather data for researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And they summon help from NOAA when they find seals snagged by fishhooks, entangled in marine debris or caught in other predicaments.
The nonprofit Monk Seal Foundation, which runs a hotline for reporting monk seal sightings on O‘ahu (220-7802), trains the volunteers and dispatches them to beaches where seals are present. A few of the most active volunteers patrol stretches of coastline on their own initiative.
While Hawai‘i’s overall monk seal population is in decline, the appearance of monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands is on the rise. O‘ahu has about 35 resident monk seals and about 50 active monk seal volunteers.
Photo: David Croxford
SEAL PROTECTION ZONES
The cordoned-off area around a beached seal is called the “seal protection zone,” or the SPZ. When the monk seal volunteers first started creating SPZs, around 2008, they used bright yellow police tape. That made the seals appear to be slumbering in the middle of crime scenes, which drew unwanted attention. Now the volunteers use cotton rope, which is a lot less conspicuous. “We have evolved,” says Dana Jones, the Monk Seal Foundation’s volunteer coordinator for O‘ahu.
THE MONK SEAL BLOG
The volunteers post daily reports and photos of monk seal activity on the Monk Seal Mania blog, monksealmania.blogspot.com. While scientists have attached alphanumeric identification tags to much of the Hawaiian monk seal population, the volunteers give the animals actual names. The blog is filled with the daily sightings, exploits and naps of a cast of characters that includes Kermit, Benny, Buster, Noa, Rocky and Pohaku. Entries have included: “Benny at Mā‘ili Point,” “Miss Rocky’s Molt,” “Noa flaunts his Cuteness,” “Update on Pohaku and her Pup,” and “Kermit and Benny fight for Rocky” (Rocky = female; Kermit and Benny = males).
FUNERAL FOR A FRIEND
Photo: Courtesy Barbara Billand, monk seal mania blog
In 2012, monk seal volunteers helped NOAA officials capture a well-known older seal named Sharkbite, who had ingested a fishhook and become ill. Unfortunately, he died of complications from surgery to remove the hook. The monk seal volunteers held a ceremony at White Plains Beach to commit his cremated remains to the sea. One of them wrote about spreading Sharkbite’s ashes for the Monk Seal Mania blog: “I was the first to stick my fat hands into Sharkbite. All I could think of was, ‘WOW—THIS IS SHARKBITE, and I am holding his spirit, his soul. Oh my god.’ I bent down in the water, gently releasing Sharkbite. Wow, wow. I just cried and cried. I bid him farewell. One by one, each person got to do the same.”
D.B. Dunlap, patrols East O‘ahu
“Somebody’s got to get the people out of the way and get the seals cordoned off to give the things a snowball’s chance to get some peace and quiet and catch a little sleep.”
Barbara Billand, patrols the West Side with her husband, Robert
“My husband and I have gone out looking for seals every day for seven years, going on eight. You learn how innocent they are. They are victims in a man’s world, and we try to protect them.”
Donna Festa, has stood watch over slumbering monk seals since 2008
“Sometimes we do have people screaming at us, telling us, ‘You can’t tell me what to do!’ We say, ‘OK. Just wanted to let you know the seal can hurt you. Goodbye.’”
* Donna is the co-owner of Lanikai General Store and also runs the website monksealmania.blogspot.com.
Did you know? In Hawaiian, the monk seal is called ‘īlio holo i ka uaua, or “dog that runs in rough water.” It is one of just two mammals found only in Hawai‘i. The other is the Hawaiian hoary bat.