Hawaiian Monk Seals on Kauai & Niihau
Hawaiian monk seals are listed by the International Union for Nature Conservation as endangered creatures and it’s estimated that only 1,200- 1,400 individuals are alive at this time. That’s why it’s important that if you see one on your visit to Kauai you do two things: first, consider yourself blessed, and second, think about what you can do to respect the seal and support its survival.
The Hawaiian monk seal is the state mammal of Hawaii and in fact, they’re just one of two mammals (the other being the hoary bat) that are endemic to Hawaii. We’re lucky on Kauai because the majority of the Hawaiian monk seal population lives in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands—Kauai, Niihau, and a handful of other tiny islands that almost nobody can name.
It’s easy to see where the common name “monk seal” came from– the short hairs on their round heads resemble the look of a monk. That name may also reflect the fact that Hawaiian monk seals live a more solitary existence in comparison with other seal species that live in large colonies. The Hawaiian name for the seal is “Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua” meaning “the dog that runs in water.”
The small population of Hawaiian monk seals are threatened by several factors including human encroachment/habitat loss, low levels of genetic variation, entanglement in fishing nets and marine debris, and past commercial hunting for skins.
The species is considered a conservation-reliant endangered species meaning that we humans need to actively help them survive. While you’re at the beach on Kauai, you may see a Hawaiian monk seal hauled out in the sand. If you do: first, consider yourself blessed, and second, do not approach the seal! If a seal is repeatedly scared off a certain beach, it will abandon that beach forever, perpetuating and worsening the issue of habitat loss. You may see volunteers set up an actual temporary fence around the seal to give it space. Please, do not, under any circumstance, breach that fence. If you do, you will look like a complete fool, local people will yell at you, and you could even run the risk of getting fined or arrested.
If you see a monk seal when you’re snorkeling on Kauai, with or without us at Holo Holo: first, consider yourself blessed, and second, appreciate the seal but don’t swim towards it or make wild gestures—there’s no need to “act big” like you would encountering a brown bear. Hawaiian monk seals are gentle, so just give it space, observe and enjoy these huge but adorable creatures that only exist in this one special part of the world.