SLUG REPORT > Hawaiian monk seal inspires UCSC researchers and conservationists an ocean away
“If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched … humans want to save things that they love.” ― Steve Irwin
This is the story of an unusual monk seal pup, whose claim to fame, though not without tragedy, has triggered a renewed effort in species protection. In 2008, Hō‘ailona was speeding toward the trend of low seal pup survival rate, after being abandoned by his mother on a beach in Kuaui at two days old.
Biologists from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), who have jurisdiction over the monk seal species, found this Kauai Pup 2 (KP2) and oversaw his rehabilitation at a facility in Oahu. By completion, however, the seal pup had become whole-heartedly domestic—a regular at Molokai beaches who preferred spending time with humans over other monk seals.
Although KP2 had made many local friends, due to safety concerns, the NMFS asked UC Santa Cruz ecology and evolutionary biology professor Terrie Williams to provide sanctuary for him at her laboratory in Santa Cruz in 2009, and Long Marine Lab became the pup’s new home. His presence as part of the Marine Mammal Physiology Project would do more for the Monk seal population than Williams anticipated.
Williams’ new book The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species, recently featured on NPR, chronicles the incredible journey of this one seal. This pup has had his own website for years, and is a household name for many a marine mammal conservationists.
KP2’s arrival sparked both enthusiasm and controversy, as his transfer from Molokai received strong media attention and criticism from the residents who had bonded with him there. Williams, who has studied seals for years, felt “overwhelmed” by the scrutiny at times.
“The human element was something I’d never had to deal with before,” Williams said in a press release.
However, not all the scrutiny targeted the trans-ocean relocation. KP2 has become something of an icon for conservation efforts. With a current population of approximately 1,100, Hawaiian Monk Seals are the most critically endangered marine mammals in America. According to a 2007 report by the Marine Mammal Commission, the population declined by 60 percent between 1958 and 2001.
And while KP2’s journey is a unique one, his initial misfortune is all too common. Low seal pup survival rates in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands have been identified by the Marine Mammal Commission as the cause of their declining subpopulations—which has also been linked to human activity and boating use on the beaches that these seals often occupy.
For seals that face extinction in 50 years or less if rates don’t improve, uncovering the details of this pup’s abandonment is larger than Hō‘ailona alone.
“We’re in a race to save this species,” Williams said in the UCSC press release. “Science can make a difference when we pay attention and understand what animals need. The monk seal researchers in Hawaii tell me that 20 percent of the current population is alive today because of the conservation efforts of the past 15 years.”
Also included in Williams’ book are scientific findings about the monk seal, such as ideal water temperature and dietary needs—many of them came to her thanks to KP2. Because of cataracts discovered in the seal, he is permanently unfit for release.
KP2 left Long Marine Lab in November for a more permanent home at the Waikiki Aquarium, where a large viewing window allows the residents who missed him to interact with the seal. The aquarium is now educating the public about monk seal conservation.
Heather Down is Hō‘ailona’s personal caretaker at the aquarium, and said that although the bond between the friendly seal and visitors is heartening, it must be taken with a grain of salt.
“A relationship like this between wild marine mammals and humans is not something you want to encourage,” Down says.
The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, as well as more local conservation groups, are conducting outreach with the residents of Hawaii to educate them about seal conservation, including abstaining from human-seal interaction.
“I’m hoping this book inspires people to help with that process,” Williams said in the press release. “The most important first step for saving this species is for people to simply care.”
A new seal at Long Marine Lab, KE18, also has a story all his own. The seal was also removed from the wild, due to his observed harassment and killing of monk seal pups. Uncovering the causes for his behavior will mean as much for the Hawaiian Monk Seals as KP2’s survival has.
PHOTO: Courtesy of National Marine Fisheries Service.