The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world. Endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, less than 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals are left on earth. Their Hawaiian name ‘ilioholoikauaua means “dog that runs in rough seas.”
Although Hawaiian monk seals spend most of their time at sea, it’s common to see them sprawled out on sandy shorelines during the day, especially while molting. Their diet consists of fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans and they typically hunt in water less than 200 feet in depth, while some have been known to forage at depths of more than 1,000 feet.
Adults are silvery-dark grey with a lighter underside and newborns are black in coloration. Female Hawaiian monk seals typically have a gestation period of about 10-11 months, and usually give birth in late March or early April. They prefer sandy, protected beaches when pupping, and mother seals will care for their pups for roughly 4-6 weeks, all while fasting and remaining on land. After this period, the mother abandons her pups and returns to the sea.
In the 19th century, the Hawaiian monk seal was hunted to the brink of extinction. Now critically endangered, this species still faces many threats resulting in a decline of species. Most of the population exists in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), but a sub-population has resided in the main Hawaiian Islands. Some of the major threats to this seal include food limitation in the NWHI, entanglement in marine debris, human interaction (which includes by-catch in fishing gear), exposure to disease, habitat loss, and male aggression towards females.
Many conservation efforts have been implemented in hopes of protecting this critically endangered species. Through research and education, we can become more aware of the challenges this beautiful marine mammal faces and help to reduce the human impact on the Hawaiian monk seal in the Hawaiian Islands.
Maui Ocean Center is respectfully in compliance with a County of Maui ordinance prohibiting the exhibit of cetaceans (marine mammals including whales, dolphins, and Hawaiian monk seals). Visit us to learn about these animals through interpretive displays in the Marine Mammal Discovery Center, naturalist presentations, and volunteers from organizations in Maui’s community.