On June 29th, 2017, for reasons we will never know, Rocky (RH58), a 17 year old female Hawaiian monk seal decided to have her tenth pup at one of her favorite haul out sites on Oahu: Kaimana Beach, on the easternmost end of Waikiki. Rocky has already had nine pups, all at Larsen’s Beach on the north shore of Kauai. When Rocky is not nursing a pup, she is seen around the east and south shores of Oahu but has never had a pup there. We knew that there would come a day when a seal would decide to pup on Waikiki Beach, and with that day would come a huge set of challenges. What we did not know was that this little seal would have an impact on the entire world and become an ambassador for her species in just 43 days. This is the story of Rocky and her pup Kaimana from the viewpoint of Jessie Bohlander, a member of the Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program:
On June 29, 2017, I was at a training with a group of coworkers when my boss checked his phone and let out an exasperated groan. A pup had been born in Waikiki. Since I’m not directly involved in pupping events, I didn’t think much of it, besides feeling glad that another pup was born this year. Over the next few days, staff from NOAA worked with the Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR) group, the State of Hawaii, and Hawaii Ocean Safety to ensure that Rocky and her pup were given enough space on the beach and that the beach users were educated about the seals. This happens with all pups born in areas that the public can access, but there was a particular concern about human safety at Kaimana Beach. Any monk seal can be aggressive, but in the cases where a monk seal attacked a person, the seals were all adult females protecting their pups. Put a 600-pound protective carnivorous mama on a 500-foot stretch of beach with anywhere from dozens to hundreds of sunbathers, paddlers, snorkelers, swimmers, surfers, and kids in the water, and you have the perfect recipe for danger. It is a completely natural behavior and as a new mom myself, I can understand the fierce maternal instinct to protect one’s offspring at any cost.
As Rocky’s pup grew bigger over the next few weeks, the pair began spending more time in the water. A local news agency, Honolulu Civil Beat, also started streaming a live feed video of Kaimana Beach on their Facebook page. The first day I watched it, a blue beach ball floated into view and drifted along the waterline towards Rocky. She raised her head, vocalized at the ball, and then attacked it, popping it with her teeth. The deflated ball sank into the sand. It was a great demonstration of what Rocky would do if anyone or anything got close to her pup. A few days later, Rocky showed her protective mama side again. Kaiwi (RK96), another adult female monk seal who was molting in the area, swam close to shore where Rocky and the pup were resting. Rocky bolted into the water after Kaiwi and chased her from the area. Many people posted videos of the event on YouTube and Facebook, and even a local TV station, KHON, aired it.
About a week after the pup was born, NOAA staff (in partnership with Honolulu Civil Beat and HMAR) began streaming weekly live “pupdates” to let everyone know how Rocky and the pup were doing, what to expect as the pup grew older, the dangers of getting too close to Rocky, and to answer questions from the hundreds of viewers who would tune in each week.
During the first few pupdates, two of the most common questions were about the pup’s gender and name. While most people were simply curious and wanted to know which pronoun to use, the gender of the pup has real implications for the future of monk seals in Waikiki. When monk seals are ready to pup, they return to the same beach on which they were born about 60% of the time. So, if this pup was a female, we knew that the chances of having another pup in Waikiki in a few years would increase and we would again be faced with all of the challenges and dangers that we are now facing with Rocky and her pup.
The sex of the pup was soon confirmed. On July 14th, we held an impromptu “gender reveal party” at the NOAA office, complete with ice cream cake. As the newest mother in the monk seal program, I had the honor of cutting the cake. I sliced into the cake to reveal the light pink strawberry ice cream filling. Rocky’s pup was A GIRL! The online community had begun to unofficially refer to the pup as “Kaimana” because of her birthplace. On July 25th, native Hawaiian practitioners and volunteers from HMAR who watched the pair from dawn to dusk officially named the pup Kaimana.
The live stream continued every day during all daylight hours. As Kaimana grew bigger, so did the number of visitors to the beach and online videos. People across the world visited the Honolulu Civil Beat Facebook and YouTube channels to watch Rocky and Kaimana. There were always people hungry to see more of Rocky and Kaimana, waiting for them to come back to shore after their daily swims to watch their interactions and to speculate through the live chats about what they were seeing. At NOAA, we also tuned in to the live stream. I have done my share of fieldwork and have spent many days, weeks, and months observing monk seals, but it was amazing to be able to see what they were doing hour by hour and day by day. I often found myself entrenched in the comments and live chat that went along with the streaming video. So many people had so many questions about Rocky and Kaimana as well as Hawaiian monk seals in general. I loved tuning in to the live pupdates each week to hear how my colleagues responded to the many great questions.
On Friday, July 28th, I was at home rocking my 9-month-old son to sleep while cruising Facebook on my phone. An alert popped up from Honolulu Civil Beat for a live video titled “Rocky is in search of her pup Kaimana who seems to have gone missing.” I clicked on the link and watched (along with hundreds of other viewers) Rocky hauling out on the beach alone and vocalizing with Kaimana nowhere in sight. A few moments later I got a text from our veterinarian, Michelle, asking if anyone was available to go down to the beach and see if we could help locate Kaimana. My son was just drifting off to sleep in my lap so the best I could do was watch the live stream and follow the text string from my coworkers who went down to the beach to try to locate Kaimana. Eventually she was found in the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial pool, an old salt water swimming pool adjacent to Kaimana beach that has been closed to the public for many years due to its dilapidated state. Before too long, our team was able to get access to the Natatorium and, luckily, Kaimana was hauled out in an area where the team was able to get to her. With the help of custodians, they moved her back to the beach where she was reunited with Rocky.
The final text of the string read “Liz confirmed that pup and mom are successfully reunited! Woohooooooo! First ever monk seal response on live feed. You guys all rock.” Indeed, that is when I realized we had entered a new era. Very often, our activities receive a lot of attention and press and we are always happy and eager to be transparent and informative about what we do with seals. But never before had one of our seal responses been broadcast live for the world to see.
Over the next several weeks, Kaimana and Rocky were back in the natatorium two more times. Each time, they found their way out without assistance. There had already been discussion about what the plan was for Kaimana once Rocky weaned and left her, which typically happens between five and seven weeks after birth. The incidents in the natatorium sharpened a sentiment held by many that Waikiki may not be a good place for Kaimana to remain once alone, and served to increase the urgency of a decision. The risk of growing up in Waikiki was that she was very likely to have more interactions with people than seals. People playing with or feeding her could lead to behaviors that could be dangerous for the public such as biting, holding people under water, or preventing people from exiting the water. We have seen seals become too accustomed to people in the past, which usually leads to relocation of the seal to a very remote place or captivity for the sake of human safety. We did not want that to be Kaimana’s fate.
We knew that Rocky nursed her previous pups for 39 to 42 days, so we had a pretty good idea of when to expect Rocky’s departure and when we needed to have a plan in place. A team of experienced monk seal biologists and managers conducted a thorough risk assessment to determine whether and where to move Kaimana. On August 8th, a press conference was held to announce that once Rocky weaned, Kaimana would be moved to a location elsewhere on Oahu, keeping her away from the risks she would face in Waikiki with the ever-tempting Natatorium, the frolicking tourists, and upcoming canoe and paddleboard races. We had selected a few suitable locations and were going to make a final decision based on conditions on the day of the translocation.
When a pup weans from its mother, our standard procedure is to attach tags to its flipper, implant a passive integrated transponder tag (similar to microchips used in domestic dogs and cats), and measure the pup’s length and girth. For Kaimana, we also wanted to apply a satellite tag so we could find her when she wasn’t in view, and give her a vaccination against morbillivirus. When planning any wild animal handling, safety is the top priority over any data objective. We carefully plan out every detail ahead of time to ensure that everything goes smoothly for us and the seal. We did not know exactly when Rocky would wean Kaimana, but we knew that when we were sure Rocky was gone, we needed to make the move as soon as possible. The faster we were done, the sooner Kaimana could start acclimating to her new environment.. Many experiences translocating weaned pups had shown us that the sooner she was moved, the more likely she would be to imprint on the new location.
After the press conference, there was a lot of speculation in the live stream chats about when the pair would wean, when the translocation would happen, and where Kaimana would be taken. I found myself logging on first thing each morning to check if the pair were still together. I realized how accustomed I had become to having this direct link to Rocky and Kaimana.
On August 11th, when Kaimana was 43 days old, I returned from a meeting at around 2 p.m. and opened the live stream on YouTube. The video showed Kaimana by herself in the water and the live chat was moving quickly. Was it the moment everyone had been watching out for? Was Rocky really gone?
Rocky didn’t return that afternoon, so we started planning Kaimana’s translocation the next morning. Most of the team met at Kaimana Beach early in the morning, but my role was to assess a proposed translocation site to see if the weather and local conditions were good before the final move. That site was not chosen, so I watched on YouTube, along with hundreds of other viewers, as our team quickly scooped Kaimana up in the stretcher net and carried her to a cage in the back of a flatbed truck. She was then taken to her new home. The team said the tagging went perfectly and she was acclimating to her new home as well as we could have hoped for! Her shiny new red flipper tags gave Kaimana a new scientific ID: RJ58. I watched our staff updates and the videos posted by Honolulu Civil Beat of Kaimana in her new home, feeling proud to have been a part of the team.
Later that afternoon, a member of the Rocky and Kaimana Facebook group posted a beautiful picture of Kaimana on her last day at her birth beach. The caption read:
“I would like to say mahalo to all my island Aunties, Uncles, Keiki, and [Kupuna] for sharing a little bit of time, aloha, and overwhelming support over these last few weeks. They say everything happens for a reason, so I will let you in on a little secret, mama Rocky having me here at Kaimana beach and not on a quiet beach on Kauai was not an accident. I was born on Kaimana Beach to bring awareness to Hawaii and the world about us, the Hawaiian Monk Seal, and as you can see, it worked. For the time being this is my aloha to you.”
This post perfectly summed up the legacy that Kaimana has started by being the catalyst to spread the word about Hawaiian monk seals to the world. We could not have done it this way without Rocky and Kaimana. As one of my coworkers said, many of us thought that this pup in Waikiki was one of our worst fears come true, but these seals have made an impact on people far and wide in a way that we could not have done on our own.
Thank you Kaimana for helping to teach the world about your species, spreading the Aloha in a way that only a little seal can do, and helping to remind me why I do what I do.
All of the videos and groups referred to in this post can be found at:
Honolulu Civil Beat YouTube Channel:
Honolulu Civil Beat Facebook Page:
Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program Facebook Page: