In the wake of two separate videos shared across social media that show two visitors touching endangered Hawaiian monk seals, Gov. David Ige warned tourists that anyone who touches or disturbs the seals “will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
“I want to be clear that this behavior is absolutely unacceptable. Visitors to our islands — you’re asked to respect our people, culture, and laws protecting endangered species that are found nowhere else in the world. For those who don’t, make no mistake, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Ige said in a post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter on Wednesday.
The widely circulated videos of the two visitors touching monk seals have angered many Hawaii residents. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is investigating the recent incidents. Dominic Andrews of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement declined to comment because the investigation in ongoing.
One of the videos recently posted on TikTok show a Louisiana woman touching a resting seal at a beach on Kauai while she was on her honeymoon in June. The video went viral across social media with numerous comments by viewers condemning the woman’s actions.
In a Monday interview with the Star-Advertiser, the woman’s husband apologized and said they were unaware of the laws pertaining to the endangered species. He said authorities had contacted them to assess a fine. He described the fine as “hefty” but did not disclose the amount.
NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is expected to release details on the case once it completes its investigation in the coming weeks.
Kauai Prosecutor Justin Kollar said, “We want visitors to understand the reason these social media videos are met with such outrage here is that people who live here feel very strongly that we live in a very special place, that our natural resources are essential to what makes this a special place. And we place a high emphasis on protecting those resources.”
“When people feel like Hawaii is being disrespected by visitors who are looking for social media clout, the response is going to always be outrage,” he added.
Another video shared by @hhhviral on Hungry Hungry Hawaiian Viral’s Instagram page shows a visitor named Alex Magala touching a resting seal on a rocky shoreline. It’s not immediately known when the encounter took place. However, his Instagram account reveals he visited Oahu in mid-May.
“I never touched a seal in my life,” Magala says in the video before he slowly approaches the resting mammal and touches it. The seal snaps its tail up and pops its head up, causing Magala to step back. Soon after, the visitor again approaches the seal and appeared interested in feeding it as he asks the person taking the video whether they have any food.
The seal barked at Magala before it entered the water and swam away.
In an Instagram post Tuesday, Magala apologized for his actions. “I just found out that I did a wrong thing.” He said he thought the seal, which appeared to be covered in green algae, was dead because it wasn’t moving. Once it started to move, “I was trying to calm it down and was not interfering,” he said in the post.
Magala could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and NOAA said they plan to hold a joint news conference Friday to address the recent incidents.
Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most endangered species in the world, according to NOAA. Protected by federal and state laws, the population is estimated at 1,400 — approximately 1,100 seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and 300 seals in the main Hawaiian islands.
NOAA says the public must maintain a distance of 50 feet to view monk seals and 150 feet for a pup with its mother.
It is considered a class C felony to touch, harass, capture, injure or kill monk seals. Violators face penalties of imprisonment or fines.
In 2018, NOAA fined an Alabama man $1,500 after he posted an Instagram video of himself touching a Hawaiian monk seal and harassing a sea turtle while vacationing on Kauai.
Hawaii residents say something needs to be done to deter people from disturbing monk seals.
Joyce Hsieh of McCully recommended stiffer penalties for first-time violators. “The punishment should be more severe than just a $500 or $1,000 fine.” When she encounters an individual at a beach attempting to disturb a resting seal, Hsieh said she asks that person how they would feel if a stranger approaches your sleeping child and touches the child.
Kalani Kaanaana, cultural director of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said, “We share in the frustration of the community who are just appalled by the behavior of these visitors who are breaking federal law and showing total disrespect to Hawaii and our home and our natural resources.”
The agency has an ongoing partnership with DLNR and NOAA to educate visitors via public service announcements on how to respectfully view marine wildlife. The organization also posts messages on its website and social media pages. Kaanaana said they have asked airlines, hotels and tour companies to also educate visitors.
The agency won’t be able to control “bad apples,” Kaanaana said, but will continue to send messages in every platform it has to ensure visitors know the law.
For those who think they are entitled to approach the seals because they spent a lot of money to vacation in Hawaii, “I’m sorry but you’re mistaken,” he added.
“My direct request to visitors who are thinking of coming to Hawaii or who are already here is to please respect our laws. Please respect our natural resources and communities. Be a mindful traveler and be cautious about what you do because it has far-reaching impacts,” Kaanaana said.