You Can Get Too Close To Nature

An overzealous visitor gets too close to a young monk seal at Ke‘e Beach | Photo courtesy Susan Veingrad

An overzealous visitor gets too close to a young monk seal at Ke‘e Beach | Photo courtesy Susan Veingrad

Animals can teach us the darndest lessons. A recent visitor to the Garden Isle can attest to that.

Two weeks ago, Kaua’i resident Mark Stein was enjoying at a day at Ke’e Beach on the island’s North Shore with his brother Mitch and his brother’s girlfriend Susan Veingrad, who were visiting from Florida. Just then a Hawaiian monk seal quietly came ashore. About a dozen people were on the beach as the monk seal slowly made its way toward dry sand, oblivious to the curious onlookers.

“Mitch pointed and said, ‘Look, there’s a monk seal,’ and Susan turned the camera and started snapping pictures,” says Stein.

What happened next surprised everyone. For some unexplained reason, an overzealous visitor approached the endangered animal. As the photo here attests. the seal made it perfectly clear it would have no part in the interaction.

“It was interesting to see this visitor walk up to put his hand out like to pet it and it growled at the person, who jumped back,” says Stein. “Even my brother jumped back.”

Veingrad snapped an amazing photo of the incident. The young monk seal obviously was sending a strong message to everyone on the beach.

“I thought that one picture was priceless, that she was able to catch it with the monk seal kind of saying ‘leave me alone,'” says Stein. “You weren’t expecting this monk seal that looks awfully friendly to do that.”

The visitor was startled but not injured. Stein says the monk seal quietly put its head down and fell asleep.

“It was just a beautiful creature, and we were able to capture it,” says Stein. “It’s nice to know that it was able to rest and relax, even amid everybody around it taking pictures.”

The chance encounter should not have happened. State and federal laws protect the Hawaiian monk seal. And for good reason – according to state officials, it is currently the most critically endangered mammal in the United States.

Monk seals were hunted to the edge of extinction in the late 1800s. The species’ population continues to decline throughout the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. But the seal population in the main Hawaiian Islands is growing.

This overlap of humans and seals has created conflict.

In early April, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DNLR) launched a public service announcement campaign aimed at educating visitors and residents about respecting Native Hawaiian marine life.

But it’s clear not everyone has received the message.

In February 2012, NOAA officials investigated a case in which a monk seal was reportedly injured by a dog in Hawaii Kai.

In January, a Hawaiian monk seal pup was found shot in the head with a three-pronged fishing spear. The 1-year-old female pup, also known as R-L-12, was found on Rabbit Island off Waimanalo by a NOAA volunteer. NOAA crews removed the spear without additional injury. It’s unknown if the pup was speared intentionally.

“If we find evidence that this was done intentionally, or any seal is harmed intentionally, we will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” says DNLR director Bill Aila.

Aila says intentionally harming monk seals is a felony, punishable by up to $50,000 in fines and five years in prison. The state asks that any injured seal be reported immediately.

“The message is one of mutual respect,” says Aila.

A week after the campaign launched, state officials made a call to all boaters and ocean users to help find a pair of sick or injured monk seals on Maui and Molokai, including an 11-month-old female that was reportedly seen with a fish hook stuck in her mouth.

Stein says the image captured at Ke’e Beach is a strong reminder that we still have much work to do and everyone, including local residents, needs to be educated.

“The whole idea is to keep our precious monk seals safe and watch from a distance. But it was interesting that it let that visitor know, ‘Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!'”