Hometown Waikiki: Hawaiian Monk Seal Mama and Her Pup

Jul 20, 2017

Rocky, an endangered Hawaiian monk seal, gave birth to a healthy young pup on Kaimana Beach in Waikīkī, June 27 or 28, 2017. A few days ago, she moved to a beach further Kokohead along the shoreline, fronting the Outrigger Canoe Club. Federal and state regulations protecting marine mammals are in effect, and an added advisory has been issued now that the pup's range is expanding.
Credit Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR).

On the Diamond Head end of Waikīkī, crowds of up to a hundred people have been reported along the boundaries set up on Kaimana beach to protect a monk seal and her pup.  The pup, born between June 27 and 28, is growing and getting stronger, prompting new and broader warnings from the Department of Land and Natural Resources.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports.

Credit noe tanigawa

The famous Waikiki Hawaiian monk seal, RH58, nicknamed Rocky, and her newborn pup are not right on Kaimana Beach anymore.  Joined by Kaiwi, another  familiar Waikīkī monk seal, they’ve moved to the other side of a rock jetty, outside Outrigger Canoe Club.  You have to g down a narrow public right of way to a jetty, Koko Head side of Kaimana.  Locals are streaming there with strollers and kids on summer vacation.  Tourists are loving it.

Members of the  Hawai‘i Marine Animal Response (HMAR) team are on site from dawn to dusk ---they are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA’s, designated first responder for monk seals and turtles on O‘ahu and Moloka‘i.  HMAR President, Jon Gelman has been busy fielding questions and organizing his team’s response. 

Credit Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR).

Gelman:  It’s a privilege to have this opportunity to see the animals but at the same time, that privilege comes with a responsibility to view the animals responsibly and from a distance and to give them the peace and the quiet they need to develop.

How is the pup doing?

Gelman:  Very normal.  It’s developing well based on what we can observe and the scientists ant NOAA.  It’s eating regularly, it’s beginning to swim with mom and it has grown significantly since it was born.  We will expect things to continue to develop however, over the next few weeks, with the mom and pup beginning to venture further and further ‘away from the birth site.

Midday, there’s a constant flow in and around the convenient viewing ledge, bristling with tripod legs and other gear. Check the photo for the public right of way alongside the Colony Beach at 2893 Kalākaua Avenue, diamond Head of Kaimana Beach.

One avid fan said she’s been coming nearly every day.

Credit noe tanigawa

"The pup has really grown fast, in one week, he’s grown a foot."

Can you tell anything about his personality?

"No, we can’t, but we can tell something about the adult’s personality.  Like the mom got on the back of the other female and bit her in order to get her out of the way."

"I really enjoyed when they were over here on this side of the jetty and the baby was just moving around the mom.  The mom was just there floating, doing nothing.  And the baby would just kind of frolic, you know, and would want to lay on her head!  And the mom would let the baby lay down on her head for a few seconds or so and then when it got older, the baby decided to take off and go over there and the mom saw her off maybe fifty feet and she just took off and got right there next to her in no time."

Credit noe tanigawa

Sooooo cute!  But that could become a problem according to Aliza Milette-Winfree, the O‘ahu Marine Mammal Response Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries. 

Milette-Winfree:  We’re actually hoping to distinguish a little bit between the super cuteness of the seals and the pretty dangerous situation that is at Kaimana’s and the surrounding beaches right now.

Milette-Winfree:  While most monk seals are not typically aggressive, any mama can become a mama bear to protect their young and a protective mother monk seal can become dangerously aggressive in an instant.  They’re incredibly fast and powerful and can cause life-threatening injuries.  The pup has been super active, they’ve been in the water swimming around quite a bit.  That’s actually one of our concerns, is that the farther they explore, the more active they get, the mom and pup could pop up anywhere at anytime.   

Milette-Winfree:  So people who are being really vigilant while they’re in the water, the might see them on the beach or in a certain area of the water and think they’re far enough away.  But because they move so quickly, it’s a danger to be swimming anywhere in that area. 

Credit noe tanigawa

Milette-Winfree:  Personally, I’m a very very strong swimmer, I am in the ocean all of the time.  I would definitely not swim anywhere in that area right now.  I have a two year old daughter and a dog who loves to go in the ocean, when I go down to the beach and I’m watching the seals and talking to the people, it’s incredible anxiety producing for myself and for the other folks on our team because we know how powerful and fast she can move and at any moment someone could be injured. I’m definitely not taking my daughter swimming in that area until mom is long gone.  This is very similar to being on a mountain with bears.  You certainly wouldn’t want to go picnic with your family right next to a mama bear.

Credit Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR).

Milette-Winfree:  We’ve got a few more weeks to go.  At that point, mom will wean her pup.  The pup will be really fat and mom will be really hungry.  So mom will head off to forage and pup will be left by herself to start navigating and learn how to forage on her own.  

Milette-Winfree:  At that point, we have a new concern that we’re wanting to get the message out about.  When we have a weaned pup and mom’s no longer around we have less of a threat of an aggressive mother but then we also have a pup that might become very curious and so we definitely don’t want the pup to become accustomed to humans and to seek out human attention.  If the pup becomes habituated to human attention, it might be cute initially, but as that pup becomes bigger and stronger it will become pretty dangerous for humans and for the seal itself. 

Rocky is seventeen years old and has lived around O‘ahu since 2002, returning to ​Kaua‘i  to give birth in the past.  She is expected to care for the female pup, known as PO3 (Pup Oahu #3 of 2017,) for another three to four weeks, after which, she will wean the pup and head off to find some food.  The pup will begin to navigate and forage on its own, looking for sea cucumbers, small fish, and crustaceans.   The pup is expected to dawdle around its birthplace at Kaimana for another several weeks or months.  

Credit Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR).