The “stay-at-home” orders in place due to the coronavirus pandemic have benefited some non-human species – specifically, Hawaiian monk seals.
Monk seal researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this year is off to a good start for Hawaiian monk seal pups in the main Hawaiian islands.
Due to various beach park closures, the critically endangered monk seals have been able to rest without as much disturbance from humans, allowing moms to nurse and rear their pups in peace.
“Because people have less access to the beach, there has been less potential for interaction, which happens when people are on the beach in large numbers,” said David Schofield, NOAA stranding coordinator. “If people are using the beaches the way they’re supposed to, moving through and swimming and surfing then we perceive there will be less interaction between the public and marine wildlife.”
To date, nine monk seal pups have been born in the main Hawaiian islands since the start of 2020 — four on Oahu, three on Molokai, and one each on Kauai and Hawaii island. A monk seal pup was just born on Molokai over the weekend, according to Schofield.
NOAA does not disclose the locations of pups to protect them.
In 2019, 25 pups were born in the main Hawaiian islands, and in 2018, which was a record year, 31 pups were born in the main Hawaiian islands.
The most notorious monk seal pup birth took place at Kaimana Beach in Waikiki in 2018.
Rocky, a monk seal well-known for giving birth on Kauai, for some reason chose Kaimana Beach in Waikiki as a place to give birth to a female pup, which was eventually nicknamed Kaimana.
While it delighted visitors in Waikiki, and increased awareness worldwide about the endangered monk seals, and how important it is to give a monk seal mom some space, NOAA officials fretted over the safety of the pup, which kept swimming in the dilapidated Natatorium swimming pool.
When the pup weaned, NOAA officials decided to transport the pup to a more remote location on Oahu’s North Shore, where it could continue to develop away from crowds of humans.
Generally, moms rear their pups for five to seven weeks, nursing them until they grow from about 30 pounds to nearly 200 pounds from fatty milk. During this time, the monk seal mom loses a great amount of body weight, and abruptly weans the pup in order to return to sea and forage.
The pup lives off of its body fat for several weeks, then begins to forage for fish itself.
Although there are fewer people on the beach, NOAA reminds the public to remain a respectful distance from marine animals, including monk seals and turtles, and would appreciate it if residents reminded others to do so as well.
“It’s a marvelous thing to come upon a monk seal mom and pup,” said Schofield. “It’s such a treasure to have the monk seal in Hawaii. People who use the beaches know how precious the wildlife is, but some may not.”
In its viewing guidelines for marine wildlife, NOAA has come up with the “rule of thumb” to determine how far to remain from a monk seal. The viewer makes a “thumbs up” gesture and extends their arm straight out in front, then turns the thumb parallel to the ground in their line of sight of the seal. If the thumb covers the entire seal, then the viewer is far enough – approximately 50 feet — away.
For Hawaiian monk seal moms and pups, the nonprofit Hawaii Marine Animal Response recommends staying at least 150 feet away.
The Hawaiian monk seal is a critically endangered species protected by both state and federal laws. Today, slightly more than 1,400 monk seals remain in the wild, with roughly 1,100 residing in the Northwestern Hawaii islands.
A growing number of pups, however, are being born in the main Hawaiian Islands, where they are at risk of entanglement with fishing gear and susceptible to toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite that reproduces in the digestive system of cats.
On April 1, a well-known Hawaiian monk seal mom, Pohaku, succumbed to toxoplasmosis following weeks of battling the disease, and after officials had rescued her from waters near Ko Olina.
Anyone sightings of monk seals, monk seal pups, or marine mammals in distress can be reported to NOAA’s hotline at 888-256-9840.