A total of 18 monk seal pups have been born in the main Hawaiian islands so far this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Of the 18 pups, five were born on Oahu, 11 on Molokai, and one each on Kauai and Hawaii island.
This year’s pupping season got off to a good start, with nine pups born by early May. Last year was a record year, however, with 48 pups born in the main Hawaiian islands, including Niihau, NOAA said.
While monk seal pups can be born any time of year, NOAA said the number of births typically peak in spring and summer.
Due to coronavirus-related beach park closures earlier this year, 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.
“While monk seals aren’t typically considered aggressive, a nursing mom can be very protective,” said NOAA. “For some mom-pup pairs, this year was quieter than usual, due to the closure of various beach parks between late March and mid-May.”
Monk seals moms typically nurse their pups for five to seven weeks, feeding them milk rich in fat to increase their weight — from 30 pounds at birth to nearly 200 pounds before weaning.
During this time, the mother loses a great amount of weight and will abruptly wean the pup before departing to forage at sea, NOAA said. The pup then lives off of its body fat as it learns to forage, eventually venturing further away from its birthplace, and departing to sea, as well.
Most females return to the beaches where they were born to birth their own pups, but not always, as was the case when Rocky in 2018 famously gave birth to a pup at Kaimana Beach Park in Waikiki, instead of Kauai. NOAA typically does not disclose pupping locations to protect the seals.
Staff and volunteers were not able to monitor seals on shorelines as actively as before the pandemic, but still did spot checks of the pups. Fortunately, all pups born during the pandemic-related lockdown were able to wean successfully, NOAA said.
Hawaiian monk seals are a critically endangered and found only in Hawaii where they are protected by state and federal laws. Only an estimated 1,400 monk seals remain in the wild — about 1,100 in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and 300 in the main islands.
With the reopening of beaches, NOAA reminds the public to view wildlife responsibly, keep dogs leashed, and maintain a safe viewing distance from monk seals, especially moms and pups.
Keeping crowds of people away from the pups “helps maintain a calm environment with as little disturbance as possible to mom-pup pairs,” according to NOAA.
Sightings of monk seal moms and pups or reports of injured marine mammals can be reported to the NOAA hotline at (888) 256-9840.