Malama da Mama (and the keiki too)

By Sean Guerin, JIMAR Biological Research Technician for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program

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Adult female R5AY greets newborn RT10 on Oahu.

Life begins between rear flippers.  Head or tail-first, a pup emerges inky-black, wet and wrinkly.  With the exhausting ordeal over, mom and pup rest. Nearly a meter long, weighing about 10 kilos (22 lbs), and little more than a bag of bones, Hawaiian monk seal pups do not quite resemble the finished product they will become. Once rested, the feeding starts. The pup bleats; the mom bellows; they nose each other; the mom presents her belly for feeding. Hawaiian monk seal moms eat rarely, if at all, while nursing.  Every waking moment for the next 5-7 weeks will be spent feeding, protecting, and teaching her pup some of the skills it will need to survive.  In fact, monk seals mothers are so attentive that one study found that pups were within 3 feet of mom 98% of the time while in the water.  When her energy and fat reserves wane and the pup’s girth has more than doubled, she will simply swim away.

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A depleted mom (right) and well-fed pup napping in the days before weaning.

The path from newborn to weaned pup is not simply a day at the beach, or even many. There are pitfalls and perils that fill these weeks. Newborn pups can be inadvertently crushed by mom or interested male seals, washed away by storms, waves, or tides, or taken by sharks.  To guard against these threats, moms remain hyper-vigilant and protective. Much like mother bears and lions, monk seal moms will stand their ground to protect their pup from imminent danger, or charge to ward off a perceived threat.  Monk seal moms have been known to charge large Galapagos Sharks, male monk seals, and even unassuming humans; any unknown large shape in the water coming toward her baby is a potential threat.

Monk seal mothers are fierce protectors of their pups.  In this clip, two Galapagos sharks, which have entered shallow waters to prey on monk seal pups, are chased off by a vigilant mother.  While the pup survived this attempt, many pups born at French Frigate Shoals do not.  This threat by Galapagos sharks is unique to French Frigate Shoals and is the primary cause of mortality for seals in their first year of life.

So what can you do?

It’s simple; admire from a distance.  You wouldn’t crowd around, take pictures, or yell to get the attention of a human mother nursing on her beach towel would you? Although monk seals are potentially dangerous wild animals, most interactions with them are benign, with a seal showing some curiosity, indifference, or moving away without a second glance.  However, greater caution should be taken with monk seal moms and pups as they are more susceptible to stress than any other seal you may have encountered and the moms can be very protective. It is because of this that SPZs (Seal Protection Zones) are set up to protect both seals and beach-goers. If you want a closer look, use binoculars or zoom in with a camera. If you did not bring these items to the beach, ask one of our Monk Seal Foundation volunteers if you can borrow theirs.

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Recently weaned RK50 enjoys an idyllic slumber on the shores of Kalaupapa.

If you want to snorkel and you find yourself around a mother and pup, consider moving to a different location. With waves, currents, tides, coral reefs, jellyfish, and sharks, Hawaiian waters have enough of the unknown to worry about. Why add a risk you can easily avoid? You cannot outswim a protective mother monk seal that thinks you are a predatory shark or bothersome seal suitor. And odds are the reef and fish assemblages will look the same down the beach where you won’t be seen as a threat.

So, if you are lucky enough to see one of only 120 or so Hawaiian monk seal pups born each year in the world, please make good choices.  Keep the pup safe and keep yourself and your family safe and appreciate these wild seals from a distance… and enjoy your day at the beach.

(P)update:

Typically running from April through August, we are in the midst of the pupping season in the main Hawaiian Islands. So far this season we know of:

3 first time moms

1 pup on Kauai

2 on Oahu, 1 weaned

6 on Molokai, 2 weaned

1 weaned on Kaho’olawe

1 weaned on Hawaii (Big) Island

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