Hawaiian monk seals have been showing up more frequently at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in recent years, but this summer – they have for the first time been enjoying it without any humans.
The bay, which has been closed since March due to the pandemic, has experienced a sort of resurgence to its coral reef ecosystem. Researchers conducting regular studies have observed clearer water, larger fish swimming closer to shore — and monk seals frolicking in an empty bay with no snorkelers to be seen for miles.
In a recent video clip captured by Friends of Hanauma Bay, a monk seal cruises in the water close to the shoreline, popping its head out every once in awhile, with no snorkelers or sunbathers in sight. Another clip by the group shows a monk seal enjoying the empty bay in July.
“This is what a Marine Life Conservation District should look like,” said Lisa Bishop, president of Friends of Hanauma Bay. “So we’re hoping that when it reopens to the public, that it will be reopening with certain changes and how the city manages access control so that we can help keep the water clarity and to keep it as pristine as it has naturally evolved since the closure in March.”
Friends, a nonprofit, supported a Honolulu City Council resolution to establish a reservation system for Hanauma Bay when it reopens, as well as keeping it closed through the end of the year. Councilmembers unanimously approved the resolution, and are considering increased entrance fees for nonresident visitors to the bay.
The monk seal footage was captured by Friends during permitted research activities.
No reopening date for Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve has yet been set.
Hawaiian monk seals are a critically endangered species, with only about 1,400 remaining in the wild. Although most reside in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, more are frequenting and giving birth around the main Hawaiian islands.
In 2017, seeing a Hawaiian monk seal at Hanauma Bay was still relatively rare, but some data has shown those sightings increased tenfold in 2018 and 2019, according to Bishop.
The seals are protected under both state and federal laws, and should not be touched or disturbed when they haul out from ocean to shore to rest.
When the bay was open, Friends of Hanauma Bay outreach coordinator Anke Roberts remembers it was a challenge to keep curious visitors from getting too close to the seals.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in its viewing guidelines for marine wildlife, recommends observing the seals from a distance of at least 50 yards, whether in the water or on shore.