First it was a startling mylar balloon that was blowing down the beach on Oahu’s North Shore. Then a 25-foot boat unexpectedly came ashore after breaking its mooring. To top it off, she had to bite an off-leash dog in the butt to protect her pup, who’s just a few weeks old.
Scientists know this 400-pound critically endangered monk seal as R912, but volunteers with the Hawaii Marine Mammal Alliance fondly call her Nihoa. They ask that her specific location not be divulged.
Volunteers and scientists alike are worried that all of these preventable human interactions may cause her to abandon her pup. There are only about 1,300 monk seals left in the world.
“This past week was a pretty good snapshot in time of what these animals face,” said David Schofield, who coordinates the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Protected Resources Division.
Monk seal mothers generally rear their pups for just six to seven weeks before sending them off on their own. They spend these days nursing and teaching them life skills, like how to forage for food.
“This is a very important time,” Schofield said.
Jon Gelman is president of the nonprofit Hawaii Marine Mammal Alliance, which includes a team of roughly 70 volunteers on Oahu who help monitor the seals and report incidents to NOAA.
On a recent Friday morning, Gelman was checking up on Nihoa along with Don Porter, who has volunteered for the alliance for a decade and serves as a board member.
“These are very dedicated, specially trained folks who spend many hours a day helping these animals,” Gelman said, adding that more volunteers are sought.
The volunteers don’t enforce laws — that’s left to state and federal officers — but they do work to educate the public about preventable disturbances and other aspects of the seals’ behavior.
Schofield said it’s important for people to consider how their decisions and actions can impact endangered species, whether it’s releasing balloons or lanterns into the air, not properly anchoring a boat or letting dogs roam free in areas known to have monk seals. In the case of dogs, it’s as much as about protecting pets as seals.
“These are things you can control,” he said.
Nihoa appeared in good shape during the visit. She took her pup through a small shore break, fended off an interested male monk seal and then hauled out on the beach to nurse.
To report a monk seal sighting, call 220-7802. Visit monkseals.org to learn more.
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