Among the clutter of orange warning flags beckoning visitors to beaches on Kauai stands a white and blue sign. It warns visitors not to touch, interact with, or even come within a hundred feet of a Hawaiian monk seal. Most beachgoers dismiss the sign as yet another warning that is clearly inapplicable in a normal situation, i.e. the “warning – falling rocks” signs that litter trails with no hills, let alone rocks, in sight. But there is always the rare occasion that such signs serve a purpose. I had the opportunity to see not one, but three monk seals during my annual stay in Hawaii this year.
On a sweltering hot day preceding the 4th of July, Poipu Beach Park, situated on the southern part of the island, a monk seal decided to make an appearance. There were two sections to the beach separated by a small sand spit that extended to a bed of rocks in open water. The young female seal hauled herself upon the shore at the tip of the spit amidst a sea of frolicking tourists, attracting a throng of people that increasingly infringed on her solitude. From my position on the upper shore, I couldn’t help but overhear the lifeguards discussing her predicament. As they walked past my green and white striped towel, they invited me to help place a makeshift fence of yellow rope and the blue and white signs around the resting seal. I was thrilled to assist; an aspiring marine scientist couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to observe such a rare creature.
With the task completed, the volunteers there (affiliated with NOAA and distinguished by nametags and beige hats) informed me of the unusually common occurrence of monk seals on heavily populated beaches. These and other animals serve as a constant reminder that we are intruders in their world. As if on cue, the seal turned its head to the crowd, blinked its red eyes, and rolled over to bask its white belly in the sun. She seemed to wish for the crowd to disperse and the waves to lullaby her to sleep. Monk seals most often travel alone, swimming up on a beach only to rest before setting out in search of food.
Their nature of isolation being widely known, the sight of two seals lying on a beach was a surprise to volunteers, lifeguards, and visitors alike. Relaxing poolside (at the Outrigger Waipouli Beach Resort) the morning of my departure trying in vain to shield myself from the scattered showers so typical of Kauai, a woman mentioned to the staff, “I think there’s a seal on the beach”. I rushed down to the Waipouli waterfront just outside of Kapa’a and stood in awe of two Hawaiian monk seals scooting along in the wake of crashing waves. Their round bodies covered in sand gleamed in the sun and their whiskers twitched every so often. These monk seals, a male and a female (distinguished by markings on their stomachs), fared much better than their fellow seal at Poipu as the crowd remained quiet and respectful, never pushing to cross the blue and white barrier. They slept peacefully in the serenity, resting before their return to Niihau, a neighboring island where this mother raises her pups.
Hawaiian monk seals are beautiful creatures native only to the Hawaiian Islands and even though I visit family there every year, this was my first sighting. With a future in marine studies, I can only hope that experiences like this will help shape my understanding of the ways of nature and the importance of preservation and conservation.
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