Watching Out for Makana
Hawaiian monk seal sightings at Maui beaches are on the rise. So look and admire—but don’t touch.
I couldn’t help wondering if “Makana,” a Hawaiian monk seal, was resting so peacefully because she knew that we members of the Monk Seal Watch Team were keeping an eye on her. I have watched over Makana for the last eight years, mostly at Ho‘okipa. A number of times, like that day last summer, I have helped put up a barrier of yellow plastic tape around her on three sides to keep people at a safe distance. This is her “seal safety zone,” a buffer to protect both the seal and beachgoers, while still allowing her access to the water.
The safety zone should really be a good 150 feet in diameter, according to National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) guidelines, but our little beach at Ho‘okipa is just too small for that. Fortunately, Makana is more tolerant of human company than most of her relatives. This has allowed her to adapt to a smaller safety zone, giving windsurfers and others access to this very popular spot. In fact, I’ve seen Makana snooze through a couple of windsurfing contests, with surfers launching all around her.
But there is a fine line between tolerance and dangerous habituation, the type that can be dangerous for both humans and animals. Brad Ryon, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, is working hard to foster a “culture of co-existence” between seals and humans, one in which a stewardship ethic flourishes for all marine resources.
A seal slumbering on the sand can look like a cross between a beach rock and a stuffed animal, so it’s no wonder that people don’t always notice them. But once they do, they are sometimes tempted to rush over and pet or hug or pour water on them. That would be a big mistake, since 600 pounds of surprised monk seal with inch-long canines can move alarmingly fast. And seals don’t need us treating them like pets.
Ryon cautions that monk seals should not get so habituated that they become beggars like some of the bears in Yellowstone National Park. During a terrifying ocean encounter with an amorous male monk seal, he experienced first-hand just how powerful these animals are. The main thing we need to do when we encounter them, Ryon says, is, “give ’em their space, and give ’em a chance.”
Makana, named by the Ho‘okipa community to acknowledge her presence as a gift, is one of 50 to 150 endangered monk seals estimated to make the main Hawaiian Islands their home. The majority of the monk seal population, more than 1,200 animals, is found among the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands beyond Kaua‘i. And Makana’s presence here truly is a gift—a bright ray of hope in the otherwise cloudy future of the Hawaiian monk seal.
There are six major breeding sites in the northwest chain’s atolls, and increasingly, births are occurring in the main Hawaiian Islands too. In 1994, Bill Gilmartin, then leader of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Program for the NMFS, headed up an effort to relocate 21 males from Laysan Island in the northwest chain to the main islands. An over-population of males at Laysan was leading to aggressive behavior. These extra guys were dropped off in the waters ranging from the north shore of Kaua‘i to the southern tip of the Big Island.
Although it’s not known for sure if these males bred with the females found here, since the relocation there has been an increasing trend in pup births in the main islands. Gilmartin, as proud as a new uncle, thinks that’s good news, since it appears that there is a recent trend for pups born in the northwestern islands not to make it past their first year of life.
Unfortunately, despite more than 20 year’s worth of efforts by the NMFS to recover this species, and even though births are increasing in the main islands, the Hawaiian monk seal population overall has declined at an average rate of 3 percent per year since 1985. It’s likely the decline would have been even more precipitous, if not for all the efforts of the NMFS and numerous volunteers.
Hawaiian monk seals reflect the health of the marine ecosystem. Sometimes referred to as an “indicator species” (like the proverbial canaries in a coal mine), the precarious status of these shy creatures tells us that our near-shore waters are indeed troubled.
One of the main threats to the recovery of these seals is the somewhat perplexing loss of juveniles in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Pups are born, but many are just not making it to the ripe old age of 4 or 5, when they reach sexual maturity. The reasons why include predation by sharks, entanglement in webs of marine debris, competition for prey with other apex predators like jacks and sharks, attacks from older male seals—who have been observed killing young of both sexes as they attempt to breed with them—and a general reduction of the seal’s prey base due to overfishing and environmental factors.
Suzanne Canja used to watch over Makana with us. Now she spends her springs and summers as field camp leader for the Monk Seal Project at French Frigate Shoals, documenting new pups and researching their mother’s lives. When she heads back up there next month, she hopes to see some of the youngsters she saw born last summer. But the prospects aren’t good. She just hopes to see an animal or two she recognizes.
And I hope to see Makana again sometime soon—with a pup.