An unfortunate encounter between a swimming tourist in Hawaii and a Hawaiian monk seal and her pup took a disturbing turn last weekend.
The tourist, a 60-year-old woman from California, was swimming near Kaimana Beach in Waikiki on the island of Oahu. The problem was that a Hawaiian monk seal, known as “Rocky” to Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and other marine biologists, was also in the area with her newborn pup. Sensing a perceived threat to her pup, the seal pursued the woman, who was injured during the encounter, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.
DLNR explained that it will not fine the woman following the encounter. While it did note that the woman happened to be in the “wrong place at the wrong time,” DLNR also determined she did not provoke the incident.
“It’s a mama seal that’s protecting its pup, and there happens to be a human who is at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Markus Faigle, who witnessed the incident, told the Honolulu Star Advertiser, according to Hawaii Public Radio. “So, it’s not a seal attacking a human.”
How The Incident Unfolded
The victim’s husband said that “Sunday morning the seals were at the far end of the beach near the Natatorium,” according to the DLNR. Then, the baby seal went out of sight and apparently swam into the former swimming pool inside the structure.
“The mother woke up and was very agitated and was barking, clearly distressed by the absence of her pup,” he continued.
In the meantime, 10 swimmers went into the water. No seals were visible on the beach or in the ocean, and lifeguards were not in their tower yet.
Video the man took from his condo, which you can see here, shows his wife swimming near the Natatorium while the seals appear to swim toward the beach. They then reverse course and begin swimming toward the woman.
“My wife had a swim cap on, and her head was in the water when both seals appeared. She could not hear 50 or so people on the beach screaming for swimmers to get out of the water,” the man said, according to DLNR. “She then stands up and hears the people screaming and waving at her, and began swimming away from the seals.”
Several rescuers then helped the woman to shore. DLNR reports that the woman received lacerations to her face, back, and arm during the incident.
Protecting Hawaiian Monk Seals And Their Pups
If you aren’t familiar with Hawaiian monk seals, unfortunately, there is a reason for it.
Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most endangered seal species in the world, according to NOAA Fisheries. The population is estimated to be around 1,570 seals in total, with about 1,200 seals on the northwestern Hawaiian Islands and 400 seals living on the main Hawaiian Islands.
Hawaiian monk seals, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and State of Hawaii law, can live to ages of 30 years or more. Adult seals, which are 6–7 feet long, weigh between 400 and 600 pounds.
The seals are also what’s known as “generalist” feeders, which means they eat marine life that’s available. So, while they are known to eat common fish, squids, octopuses, and eels, they also eat a variety of crustaceans, including crabs, shrimp, and lobsters.
Spring and summer are the monk seals’ pup season, so NOAA Fisheries asks everyone to give Hawaiian monk seal mothers and pups plenty of space — at least 150 feet — and avoid disturbing them. That way, mother seals will remain with their pups and ensure they get the nutrition the pups need.
Indeed, NOAA Fisheries and response partner Hawaii Marine Animal Response note that they have had warning signs such as this one and protective fencing in place at Kaimana since the day Rocky’s pup was born.
Furthermore, Hawaii Marine Animal Response said the California woman had already been warned about monk seals in the area. It was also noted that posted signs and barriers are sufficient to make people aware of the seals, according to Hawaii News Now.
“There’s signs on this beach saying give seals space,” said Jody Newton, a tourist from Australia, according to Hawaii News Now. “There’s enough for people to actually follow the rules and it’s very clear.”
The good news is that since the incident, RH58 — as Rocky is known scientifically — and her pup appear to be doing well, NOAA Fisheries reports. They will continue spending time in the water and will venture further away from land as the pup grows.
“We anticipate RH58 will nurse the pup until the week of August 14, 2022, based on her past pupping behavior,” explains NOAA Fisheries. “At that point, she’ll wean him, and we may relocate him to a less populated location, as we have done for her other two seals, Kaimana and Lōliʻi, who also were born at Kaimana Beach.”
In the meantime, the Hawaii Marine Animal Response continues to remind people to keep at least 150 feet from mother monk seals and their pups.
“In addition, Hawaii has many beautiful beaches to swim at, quite a few just a short distance from Kaimana Beach — so we strongly recommend swimming at any of these other beaches during the next few weeks while mom and pup are on the beach,” Hawaii Marine Animal Response wrote on Facebook. “Although monk seals are not typically aggressive, mothers can become protective of their pups, can be aggressive, and can inflict serious injuries.”
You can learn more about Hawaiian monk seals in Scientists Are Celebrating A Major Feat For Hawaii’s Endangered Monk Seals and Photos Capture Rare Look At Adorable Newborn Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal.