Category Archives: Monk Seal

Monk seals make movies with the ‘critter cam’

Published February 24, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

One of the major problems biologists face in protecting our critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals is lack of knowledge. When seals are in the water, where do they go? What do they eat? How do they find it?

The scarcity of facts, particularly about the eating habits of monk seals, is frustrating for managers who need to know more to help the animals’ plummeting populations.

At French Frigate Shoals, the number of seals has dropped from about 800 in 1989 to about 400 currently.

Recently, though, there’s been a breakthrough in underwater seal study: Workers have devised a way for monk seals to film themselves.

National Geographic photographer Greg Marshall invented the sophisticated system, nicknamed the “critter cam.” Last summer, with National Marine Fisheries Service biologists, Marshall attached a 4-pound camera to the back of each of eight male monk seals at French Frigate Shoals.

To do this the team sedated the chosen seal. Then they epoxied the camera housing onto the seal’s furry back, just behind the neck.

When the seals woke up, they headed for the ocean and the cameras started rolling.

Daylight and saltwater immersion triggered filming, which was timed to run for 11/2 minutes every 15 minutes. After the three-hour film ran out, the team found the seals and removed the cameras.

Watching the subsequent footage feels like a breakneck ride on the back of the seal itself. But besides the thrill of getting a seal’s-eye view of the world, researchers now know something about what these marine mammals do when they disappear beneath the water’s surface.

Sometimes the seals are simply napping. The cameras recorded seals sleeping in caves as deep as 250 feet. After about five minutes, the seal would swim to the surface, take a breath or two and head back down for more snoozing.

Some camera-bearing males also spent time stalking and harassing female and immature seals. One adult male was recorded chasing, bellowing at and trying to mount a juvenile seal.

Other times, monk seals forage for food. Everyone expected this. But it was the seals’ style of hunting that came as a surprise.

Never did seals chase fish swimming in the open. Sometimes whole schools would pass by without arousing the slightest interest of the seal.

Instead, the films showed seals cruising over sandy or rocky bottoms as deep as 300 feet. Occasionally, the animal would turn over large, flat rocks with its snout, presumably looking for eels, octopus, sand-dwelling fish or invertebrates.

One time a seal caught and ate a razor wrasse. Another snatched a triggerfish. A third ate an octopus. A fourth seal rooted in and around an empty lobster trap.

Sometimes, gray and Galapagos sharks accompanied the seals during this rooting. Other times as many as 30 jacks tagged along, probably waiting for a fish or invertebrate to be flushed out by the seal’s stirring.

This information may not seem earth shattering, but in the world of monk seal research, it’s a gold mine. And it’s just the beginning.

This summer the critter cam team is planning to attach cameras to seals again, possibly in another area of the refuge.

By comparing films, researchers may find clues to the reasons behind the French Frigate Shoals’ population decline.

These critter cams belong to the National Geographic Society, which means that everyone will likely get to see some of this fantastic film work in one of their upcoming nature shows.

Watch TV listings for a National Geographic special on seals. In it our own Hawaiian monk seals will be the stars, carrying the cameras that not only entertain but may also help save the species.

Call fisheries service if you spot the ‘Kaneohe Kid’

Published December 9, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

“Im so glad you’re home,” my neighbor Valerie said breathlessly when I answered the phone.

“There’s a monk seal playing with a fisherman right here on our beach.”

Playing with, I thought skeptically. More like, fleeing from. Then I heard the story.

Valerie had been walking on the beach when she saw a seal pop its head up near a man spearfishing in waist-deep water. The seal swam shoulder-to-shoulder with the man, occasionally nudging him. The man gently pushed the seal away, but it wouldn’t leave.

The story seemed inconceivable to me until she added, “They came in so close, I waded in. And it touched me.”

“A monk seal touched you?” I said.

“I know you’re not supposed to get near them. But it came to me. Just like with the fisherman. It seems to crave the contact.”

By this time, I was already pulling on my swimming suit. “I’ve got to see this,” I told her. “Grab your snorkel gear.”

Moments later, Valerie and I found the fisherman. He was minding his own business, looking for octopus. Directly behind him, playing with a trailing line and a net full of octopus, was the friendliest monk seal pup in the world. He bounded around the man like an exuberant puppy.

“Excuse me,” I said to the fisherman. “Do you know this seal?”

“Nope.”

“He seems to like you,” I said.

“I can’t get rid of him. He’s ruining the fishing.”

“Maybe he’s attracted to your octopuses.”

“Naw. I gave him one. He wouldn’t eat it.”

The mildly irritated man returned to his fishing; Valerie and I snorkeled behind. The pup checked us out and, yes, even rubbed against us. But his main interest was with the fisherman.

After a while, Valerie and I came in, leaving the spirited pup with his reluctant new friend.

The pup, I learned later, was the “Kaneohe Kid,” a Hawaiian monk seal born last spring on a Mokapu Peninsula beach. When its mother weaned the little male, officials of the National Marine Fisheries Service decided to leave it in Oahu waters and see what happened. Perhaps it would become an ambassador, endearing people to its species.

It endeared itself a little too much. The wild animal got so friendly, it soon found trouble. Once, managers had to remove a fishhook from its mouth. Also, concerned citizens called constantly, reporting incidents similar to the one above.

Then, just when officials decided it was time to move the affectionate pup to a remote area, the calls stopped. The Kaneohe Kid has disappeared.

Managers fear the pup is dead but don’t know for sure. If you see this friendly seal, you can help him by calling the National Marine Fisheries Service at 943-1221.

Resist the urge to touch this or any other Hawaiian monk seal. These critically endangered mammals are protected by strict federal laws. Also, they can bite, even in play.

Female monk seal draws attention but needs privacy

Published May 20, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996Susan Scott

The monk seal and her pup on Mokapu Peninsula. Official USMC photo by Aaron Martin.

LAST week, on Mother’s Day, I received a dinner invitation from friends staying at a Kaneohe Marine Base VIP cottage.

It wasn’t until I was driving down the narrow road of the Mokapu Peninsula that I remembered a press release sitting on my desk. In April, a female monk seal had given birth on a beach somewhere near these cottages.

Now there’s a noteworthy mother, I thought. Since only about 1,300 Hawaiian monk seals are left in the world, this female’s maternal efforts may make a vital contribution to the survival of her entire species.

After greeting our hosts, I asked about the seal mother and her pup. They had heard nothing.

I trudged down to the beach and asked the federal lifeguard about the seal. He knew of the event but believed that the pup was weaned and both seals had left the peninsula.

This seemed early to me, but then, I couldn’t remember how long monk seals nursed their pups. I returned to the cottage disgruntled that I hadn’t seen the seals and frustrated with myself for not remembering more details.

After several calls the next day, I learned that yes, the mother seal is still on the beach nursing her healthy pup, born April 6.

However, they are on an isolated (and now roped-off) beach on the Kaneohe Bay side of the peninsula. I was looking on the Kailua side.

Female monk seals nurse their young for about six weeks, meaning this Oahu pup’s weaning is likely to occur any day now.

After its withdrawal from mother’s milk, National Marine Fisheries Service managers will decide if the pup (called a weaner at this stage) needs to be moved to another island or left on Oahu.

THE move would be for its own safety. Five years ago, this same seal mother gave birth to another pup on Oahu’s North Shore. Fearing nets or other fishing gear on Oahu would hurt or kill the youngster, officials moved the weaner to Kure Atoll.

That pup, a female, is now alive, well and approaching sexual maturity. Managers are anxiously waiting for signs that this Oahu offspring is pregnant.

But back to the Oahu mother. Although not tagged, this seal, at least 12 years old, is no stranger to Hawaii’s marine mammal managers, who recognize her by her unique body scars. Besides giving birth here, this seal occasionally shows up in public places, causing plenty of commotion.

ONCE, she spent the day basking at a popular beach in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. Biologists sat with her for the day to answer questions and manage crowds.

Another time, this resolute female picked a public place on Maui to molt, causing day after day of traffic jams by wildlife enthusiasts.

After learning the history of this particular monk seal, I realized that my inability to find her at Mokapu last week was probably a blessing in disguise. Although this seal appears to tolerate humans more than most, she still needs peace and quiet during this critical period of nursing her young.

This isolated Oahu beach was the perfect place for this extraordinary mother to spend Mother’s Day with her new baby.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean Watch”,
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, www.starbulletin.com