Spring delivery: Monk seal born on West Hawaii beach

  • Hawaiian monk seal R405 rests with her pup in late April at an disclosed beach. The pup is the Big Island’s first this pupping season. (Lauren Van Heukelem © The Marine Mammal Center/Special to West Hawaii Today)

For a third straight year, a Hawaiian monk seal has been pupped on West Hawaii’s shores, officials confirmed Wednesday.

The seal’s birth was first documented in late April by trained responders from The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital in Kailua-Kona, the center’s Animal Care Manager Megan McGinnis said. The seal’s gender is not yet known.

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The pup and its mother, identified as R405, continued to rest and bond on a West Hawaii beach this week. R405 is a “transient” seal with a fairly unknown history, McGinnis said. She was first spotted in March 2019 and has been seen since occasionally frequenting the island.

“Our experts are currently monitoring the mom and pup and are pleased that the pair have chosen a very convenient and safe location,” McGinnis said. West Hawaii Today is not disclosing the exact location to protect the critically endangered mammals during this critical period.

The youngster is among nine pups born in the main Hawaiian Islands so far this year, according NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. That includes four on Oahu, two on Molokai, and one each on Kauai and the Big Island.

Researchers said the year is off to a good start, the Honolulu-Star Advertiser reported Monday. The various beach park closures amid Hawaii’s stay-at-home order have ensured the seals have been able to rest without as much disturbance from humans.

“Because people have less access to the beach, there has been less potential for interaction, which happens when people are on the beach in large numbers,” said David Schofield, NOAA stranding coordinator. “If people are using the beaches the way they’re supposed to, moving through and swimming and surfing then we perceive there will be less interaction between the public and marine wildlife.”

The 2020 pupping season comes on the heels of a recording-breaking 2019 when 48 Hawaiian monk seal pups were born in the main Hawaiian Islands during the spring and summer, including one on the Big Island, according to the program’s update released in March.

Hawaii Island’s lone 2019 pup was Kaulana, a male monk seal born to RA20 in March 2019 on a Kona Coast beach. It was RA20’s second successful pupping at the same site, following the birth of Manuiwa in February 2018. RA20 was believed to have been pregnant this season, but officials believe she lost the pregnancy prior to her temporary hospitalization in March.

An estimated 1,400 monk seals inhabit the main and Northwestern Hawaiian islands, according to NOAA. Approximately 300 of those seals cruise the waters and haul out on beaches in the main Hawaiian Islands.

The center said the public can play an important role in the conservation of the endangered species by keeping a few marine wildlife viewing tips in mind when visiting local beaches and wildlife preserves by keeping a safe distance from seals, using the zoom function on cameras and reporting sightings.

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A good “rule of thumb” to know if you’re too close to a monk seal is to hold up your thumb perpendicular to the animal, and if you can see any of the seal, you are too close.

To report a sighting, call or text The Marine Mammal Center’s Hawaii Island response team at its 24-hour hotline at (808) 987-0765. To report wildlife harassment, call NOAA Fisheries’ Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964.

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