With a small splash, the male monk seal slipped into the water off White Plains Beach and cruised along the ocean floor, exploring the crevices of rock caves.
Castle High School students Wendi Domingo, Lexi Kapua and Kahner Aipia observed the seal’s point of view from a small camera mounted on his back as the marine mammal passed some parrotfish, then a sea turtle, and surfaced near the Aulani Disney resort in Ko Olina.
Clustered in small groups, the students in teacher Dani Padilla’s marine science class were studying the footage via laptops as part of a video project for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Some had never seen a Hawaiian monk seal in real life before or known much about the critically endangered species.
NOAA scientist Charles Littnan brought the footage — part of a $200,000 research project— to give students a firsthand look at what the seals do underwater.
It’s all part of an effort to educate and engage the community in monk seal research. In fact, the Castle students got to see the footage a week after it was retrieved — before scientists did.
Jasmine Stidger, a junior who plans to study marine biology in college, was particularly attentive as she logged the behavior of the seal known as Kermit. Most of the time he moseyed along the bottom of the ocean, but there was an "aha!" moment when the animal apparently encountered — and devoured — an octopus.
Stidger was impressed with Kermit’s hunting skills.
To learn more about NOAA’s monk seal research program, visit www.facebook.com/HMSRP. To get involved, schools can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
"He knew exactly where that octopus was," she said.
In its entirety the project will collect more than 300 hours of video footage from dozens of monk seals on various isles. NOAA is midway through the three-year project, which uses Crittercams on loan from National Geographic to record the seals’ foraging behavior.
The data collected by students will be used by NOAA to create a short video to be presented to community groups.
Padilla sought out the hands-on opportunity after spending the semester teaching the students about human impacts on marine life. Besides learning about how plastic litter and net entanglements can harm marine animals, students visited the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island to study ocean acidification.
"For me, the neat thing is having them do something that impacts their community directly," Padilla said. "It’s not just for a grade, but a project they can carry out to conversations with friends and family."
KERMIT, an approximately 20-year-old male, is one of the growing number of Hawaiian monk seals residing in the main Hawaiian Islands. Only about 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals, which are protected by federal and state endangered-species laws, remain in the state. Most live in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument comprising the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but an increasing number — about 200 — now live in the main Hawaiian Islands.
Their population was in a decline at about 5 percent per year between 2003 and 2007, but the rate is now much slower due to a growth in the main Hawaiian island population and rescue efforts.
While the seals’ main predators are sharks, humans are perhaps the greatest threat, whether it be from fishing hook or net entanglement, physical harassment or intentional killings.
Barbara Billand, a volunteer for the Monk Seal Foundation, has kept tabs on Kermit over the last seven years. When a monk seal hauls out to rest, Billand helps rope off the area around it and educates the public about not disturbing the animal.
She described Kermit as laid-back and smart.
"He is a gentle soul, but will fight if he has to," she said. "Most times, he is on shore, snoozing alone under the warm sun."
Kermit has had his share of run-ins with humans. In 2009, NOAA marine mammal specialists removed a barbed fishhook from his mouth. In 2011 a teen was fined $100 for slapping Kermit as he was re-entering the ocean after resting on shore at White Plains Beach.
Today the 500-pound-plus seal continues to hang out mostly on the Leeward side of Oahu, occasionally surfacing on the east side by Manana, commonly known as Rabbit Island.
The Crittercam was installed on Kermit’s back Feb. 7 and removed a week later. The cameras are glued to the seals’ backs and may be an annoyance but do not cause any harm, according to researchers.
Getting students involved is key to dispelling myths about monk seals in the community, according to Littnan, who worked with two schools on Molokai last year and plans to do so again this year, along with a school on Kauai. Castle High School was the first Oahu school to participate in the project.
Littnan believes there’s no more powerful medium than videos through which to communicate.
"On Molokai the students are the ones who are talking about monk seals now, not the scientists," he said. "There’s a lot that the camera tells us. Feeding behavior is the No. 1 thing the camera will reveal to us."
At public meetings the seals have been called "locusts of the sea" and blamed for threatening fish stocks and fishermen’s livelihood. Some have even questioned whether monk seals are from Hawaii.
At one meeting a fisherman alleged that monk seals were eating up to 600 pounds of fish a day.
Crittercam footage can prove this isn’t true, according to Littnan, who said the seals are more selective, passing an average of 300 fish for every one they eat.
Most of the footage — swimming, sleeping underwater and surfacing for air — is not the stuff of reality shows. More than two hours can pass before a seal eats.
Boring as it may be to most viewers, the footage is invaluable for scientists in understanding the ecology and foraging behavior of seals, as well as the health of their habitat, Littnan said.
Student Tyler Kon, a fisher and diver, said though he’s never encountered a monk seal in the ocean, he had heard many stories of how they eat a large number of fish.
"Watching the videos from the Crittercam shows just how much fish they just swim by without even trying to eat them," said Kon.
He said he has a newfound appreciation for the animals.