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Rocky got fat.
Photographer Melody Bentz noticed. Other people in her neighborhood noticed.
So when the 17-year-old Hawaiian monk seal gave birth three weeks ago, the locals weren’t really surprised.
“We had been speculating since last December that she was pregnant,” Bentz said. “It was a bit of an ‘I told you so’ moment.”
What was a surprise, however, was the location. Rocky had given birth to nine other pups over the years, all in Kauai. This pup was born on Kaimana Beach, the first Hawaiian monk seal pup born on a Waikiki beach since the species was put on the endangered list in 1976.
The spectacle unfolding at Hawaii’s tourist hub has resulted in a small army of monk seal followers. Some watch Rocky and the pup’s antics on Civil Beat’s livestream, which has garnered more than 1 million views from around the world. Others come to Kaimana Beach to watch the duo in person. Some mornings, just the regulars come to see the seals, but by the afternoon tourists are craning their necks to see around each other.
Even before there was a wriggling monk seal pup in Waikiki, there was a community of advocates and volunteers educating people about the endangered endemic species.
Charles Littnan, the lead scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, said the species is finally seeing some growth, as the population is now about 1,400 seals, up from about 1,100 in 2009. The growing population prompts urgency in long-term conservation education.
Bentz is contributing to that cause with her “Rocky the Hawaiian Monk Seal” Facebook fan page.
Rocky is the first monk seal Bentz ever met. Every day, she updates the page with photos, videos and information on the seal. Now Rocky’s pup, who bears the scientific name PO3, is a recurring character as well.
She’s waiting for a more personal name that will come from consultation with Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and volunteers from the Hawaii Marine Animal Response, but people have unofficially dubbed her “Kaimana” for her birthplace.
Now the pup is a star, inspiring volunteers in navy blue shirts to stand in the summer sun, condo owners who take their 6 a.m. coffee on the beach to pause and watch, an online community of followers and even the passersby on vacation who stop and often ask questions of the volunteers.
The volunteers are there to keep people at a safe distance — for their own safety and the welfare of the seals. But they’re also there to enhance the education experience and help humans on Hawaii’s busiest beach coexist with a species that was on the brink of extinction.
Rocky, who scientists call RH58, was already a regular, sunbathing on nearby Iroquois Point Beach at least once every couple of months for at least two and a half years, Bentz said.
“I’ve gone through volunteer training, and we were always told to not get attached, which is hard,” she said. “A lot of us have sat hours and hours on the beach with her”
Bentz started the Facebook page at the end of 2016 after watching her neighborhood’s internal Facebook group serve as an unofficial monk seal message board. People shared stories and safety tips about Rocky and another visiting seal. The community in essence adopted Rocky and used social media to distribute information.
After the pup was born, Bentz’s page doubled its “likes.” People who view the profile hail from as far away as Russia and the Ukraine.
When Bentz visited Rocky and her pup about two weeks after the birth, she snapped a photo of Rocky looking right into her lens.
“It was a really emotional moment,” she said. “I would hope that she would recognize my voice, but I do know that she is a wild animal.”
On any given day, volunteers from the Hawaii Marine Animal Response team comb the beaches of Oahu calling in seal sightings, and erecting perimeters of plastic netting to establish a recommended watching distance.
Volunteers told Civil Beat they were prohibited by the organization from commenting for this story, but they’re out year-round, and their work is centered on educational outreach.
At Kaimana Beach, the volunteers at the netting are there to make people aware of the seals’ presence and to answer questions. It’s hard to miss a 600-pound seal and a squirmy baby, but some people still plunge into the water nearby.
Yes, it looks like the mom and pup are playing, a volunteer tells a curious tourist, but the mother is teaching her pup how to be a seal.
Since the pup’s June 29 birth, at least one volunteer has been on hand nonstop to answer questions.
How long is the gestation period? Ten to 11 months.
How much does Rocky weigh? Females can weigh up to 600 pounds, and they gain weight before giving birth because they nurse their pup for six to eight weeks without feeding themselves.
If mom and pup haven’t moved for a while, onlookers ask, “Are they dead?” No. They thermoregulate, because they are mammals. They spend about one-third of their day sunbathing.
How close can I get?
This question draws a brief pause from Jon Gelman, president of Hawaii Marine Animal Response. He said the netting is set up to establish a perimeter around the mom and pup where potential disturbance is minimized. In a mom and pup situation, the recommended minimum distance is up to 200 feet. It’s less for a solitary seal.
There is no legally enforceable distance, he said, and the volunteers can only arm beachgoers with information for their own protection.
People still swim out in front of the duo, even though Rocky sometimes dashes through the water. And tourists still drag their belongings through the sand to crouch within 15 feet of Rocky’s face to snap photos.
The volunteers are there to advise, but other observers sometimes holler when someone misbehaves.
“Excuse me? Excuse me do you see that you’re too close to the seals?” a woman shouted at a man walking from the Outrigger Canoe Club across the beach where Rocky, the pup and Kaiwi — a 6-year-old seal who sometimes join them — were sunbathing.
“What happens is, especially with a mom and pup, it brings a lot of emotion,” Gelman said. “It brings out this protective emotion. They’re wild animals, they don’t really need our protection. It’s more about preventing disturbance and moving toward coexistence.”
Sometimes the three seals lounge together on the roughly 50-foot stretch of sand behind the Colony Surf building, but they don’t always get along. One morning, Rocky voiced deep, reverberating growls at Kaiwi as mother and pup returned from an hourlong swim.
When Rocky spotted Kaiwi, she bared her teeth at the writhing interloper, who scuttled away into the water. Rocky let out a shrill chirp and looked over her left fore flipper to see her pup rolling in the sand beside her.
Patty Anderson Burton lives in the condo behind the beach, and every morning she trades the bird’s-eye view of the duo from her Lanai to watch on the beach. She chats with other observers — even though she’s not a volunteer, she’s been learning everything she can about the endangered species.
She grew up in Hawaii but never encountered a monk seal before. Now, her iPhone is full of photos and videos of Rocky, the baby and Kaiwi, too.
“When mom has to bark at baby because it’s too far out, it just reminds you of having your own small children,” Burton said.
NOAA’s Littnan has been working with Hawaiian monk seals for 15 years and knows them by their markings, tag numbers, nicknames and favorite beaches. A lot of the population growth, he said, is due to the conservation work NOAA does and all the help from volunteers.
“We don’t want people getting hurt, and we don’t want the seals getting hurt,” he said.
When pups are born, the first days are crucial.
Rocky has to make sure her pup isn’t swept away, because she is awkward in the water. Rocky also has to feed consistently, and watch out when she rolls over. Mom and pup are always touching. Sometimes the pup’s fore flipper is draped over Rocky’s eyes. Other times they lie belly to belly in the sun.
Another significant milestone for pups’ survival and success in the wild is the weaning period. After about 40 days of nursing on the beach, Rocky will leave and the pup will be alone. Littnan said the pup will be extremely curious during this period — one monk seal pup was seen trying to suckle a log.
She’s also going to be confused. Her source of food will have vanished, and her daily routine of feeding, swimming and sleeping with mom will have ended.
Volunteers are instrumental during this period.
When Littnan started working with the seals, there was no organized volunteer group to help with education and outreach. In the early 2000s, people would report seal sightings directly to NOAA. Some of them were distinguishable by their markings only, and they were often named on the spot for their characteristics.
Rocky, for example, was named by D.B. Dunlap, who was known in the community as a “monk seal whisperer.” He came up with the name from the Beatles song “Rocky Raccoon,” because the first time he saw her, she was covered in green algae from long feeding dives and had big, black rings around her eyes.
Dunlap dedicated nearly two decades to the seals in his retirement before he died earlier this month, and that legacy continues in a blog called Monk Seal Mania, run by Donna Festa, who calls Dunlap her monk seal sensei.
Festa, owner of the Lanikai General Store, met Dunlap in 2008 when a monk seal hauled out on Kailua Beach. He was an older male named Chester, the moniker derived from a long scar down his chest, and Dunlap came out to help.
He had patrolled the island reporting monk seal sightings for almost 10 years by then, and emailed a nightly report with photos.
Festa updated her blog nightly with Dunlap’s seal sighting summaries.
Chester had hauled out for what is called a catastrophic molt, an event when the seals shed the top layer of skin that sometimes has brown, mottled fur to reveal a silver, shiny coat. Beach traffic was especially high at that time because the 26 days he was on the beach included the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
When Festa met Chester, she had to relearn everything she thought she knew about Hawaiian monk seals.
“Boy, I was greener than green,” she said. “Because it is endangered, I was expecting this task force or a bunch of rangers to show up.”
Instead, Festa and some other Kailua residents went out every day and formed makeshift perimeters around Chester. They learned about monk seals from NOAA and taught other beachgoers proper safety.
“If it is endangered, who is going to protect it? Oftentimes, we call on the community,” she said.