In the wake of a Hawaiian monk seal attack on a visitor from California, federal officials are reminding the public to give the endangered animals a respectful distance.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommended: “Give them space — that’s one of the main messages we emphasize when it comes to endangered Hawaiian monk seals. Space is especially important for mother seals with pups.”
On Sunday morning, a 60-year-old woman swimming in waters at Kaimana Beach was pursued and injured by Rocky, the Hawaiian monk seal that gave birth to a male pup, PO8, earlier this month.
The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources said she suffered lacerations to her face, back and arm, and that it was a “terrifying experience” for her.
DLNR will not fine her following the encounter, saying that she happened to be in the “wrong place at the wrong time,” but did not provoke the incident.
NOAA recommends staying at least 150 feet away from mother seals with pups on land and in the water.
Although both NOAA and its nonprofit Hawaii Marine Animal Response have posted warning signs and put up protective fencing, cautioning the public that monk seal mothers can be aggressive and bite, it is not against the law to enter the water, DLNR said.
The recommended 150-foot distance is also a guideline, and not law, but NOAA says “we strongly advise people to follow them — for personal safety as well as the seals’ protection.”
NOAA said that the incident shows how protective mothers can be around their young pups. Rocky was out for a morning swim with her pup when the swimming woman caught her attention and she began barking at her.
“Biologists believe mother monk seals vocalize to warn other seals to stay away and to communicate with their pups,” said NOAA in its post late Monday.
Rocky pursued the swimmer, which she perceived to be a threat to her pup, and the encounter resulted in injuries to the woman.
“We wish the swimmer a speedy recovery, and we also urge people to follow guidance from safety and wildlife officials,” said NOAA in the post. “The best thing you can do when it comes to mother seal interactions is to avoid them. Hawaii has so many amazing beaches: Choose to use another area for water activities for the 5 to 7 weeks that monk seal pups nurse.”
Although photos of mother monk seals cuddling with their pups — which are widely shared on social media – can make the seals seem non-threatening, NOAA said natural instincts kick in when it comes to protecting their babies. Monk seals are not usually aggressive toward people, NOAA said, but mother seals can be very protective and territorial.
Since the incident, NOAA says Rocky and her pup appear to be doing fine, and that they are expected to spend more time in the water and venture farther out as the pup gains strength.
Rocky and her pup, PO8, are expected to continue nursing at Kaimana Beach through mid-August.
When the pup weans, officials may also relocate him to a more remote location, away from humans, as they did with two earlier pups born at Kaimana Beach.