Researchers are taking note of an epic, 1,300-mile swim by a Hawaiian monk seal from Kure Atoll, the island at the northernmost point of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, to Oahu in about one month.
Monk seal KG54, a six-year-old female seal, made the swim, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, and hauled out at Kaena Point State Park on Oahu’s North Shore last Wednesday.
Researchers are aware that the seals travel between the Northwestern and main Hawaiian islands, but said the journeys usually take several years.
A 2015 study that looked at seal movements over a 30-year period found the pinnipeds moved mostly between neighboring islands, but not long distances, according to Dr. Michelle Barbieri, program lead for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.
Travel of up to about 250 miles between islands by the seals is more common.
“We have data that shows at least 10 seals have made at least 14 different trips between the main Hawaiian Islands, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and Johnston Atoll between 1981-2011 and since then, there have been several more,” said Barbieri in a news release. “What’s impressive about KG54 is she made the trip in about a month, where other seals are more likely to make it over the course of several years.”
Lesley Macpherson, an interpretive technician at Kaena Point State Park, said she could tell KG54 was not a mainland seal by her gray instead of red flipper tag. The fact that KG54 swam “so far, so quickly, all by herself” is amazing, she said, and she has been nicknamed Huaka‘i, which means traveler, journey, or path taken.
While resting on shore, she has been joined by fellow monk seals.
Researchers believe KG54 left Kure about mid-August, but do not know her molt status or the exact reason for her thinner appearance, Barbieri said
Monk seals undergo a “catastrophic molt” about once a year, shedding the top layer of their skin and fur to get rid of algae, which is replaced with a new, silvery coat. The process can take one to two weeks while the seal rests on shore, according to NOAA, and usually results in weight loss.
“It seems reasonable that she expended a lot of energy coming to Oahu,” said Barbieri. “However, some seals from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands can be thinner than those born in the main islands, so it’s probably a combination of both factors.”
With only about 1,400 left in the wild, Hawaiian monk seals are a critically endangered species protected by federal and state laws. Sightings of monk seals can be reported to NOAA’s hotline at 888-256-9840.