Hawaiian Monk Seals are indigenous to the Islands and are "true" seals, meaning they use their rear flippers for propulsion, steer with their front flippers, and have no external ears. Eared seals, on the other hand, in addition to having external ears, swim with their front flippers and steer with their rear ones. Also, eared seals can put their rear flippers underneath their body to act as feet, which gives them more mobility on land. True seals cannot do this and have to lurch along on their belly. Seals are very closely related to bears and dogs, but left land for the sea about 2 million years ago.
When the Polynesians arrived, the seals were distributed throughout the Hawaiian archipelago. They were hunted by the Hawaiians and so gradually moved to the Leeward isles which were uninhabited by humans. After European contact, hunters came to kill them for oil and pelts and like many sea mammals, they were brought to the edge of extinction.
Their numbers have declined to about 1200 animals from three times that number fifty years ago, despite being protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1976. The problem? Debris in the water - drift nets, lines, rope, etc. in which they can become tangled and drown, or various plastics, which they may try to swallow and choke to death or can end up blocking their stomach causing them to starve. These are problems shared by green sea turtles and many birds.
Last year, President Bush signed an executive order declaring the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a U.S. National Monument, creating the largest protected marine area in the world and the largest single conservation area in the history of the United States. (I can't help but point out that there is no oil in the area and this was probably done as a sop to the public in order to "balance" his other actions with regard to environmental issues.) Whatever the reasons, it's a good thing. Also, it is one thing to create a National Monument or park, but another thing to properly fund it. It is important to make sure Congress provides enough funding to the National Park Service.
In recent years, Hawaiian Monks have been returning to the main islands and can even be seen at times on the beach at Waikiki. The first one I saw was on Poipu Beach on the south shore of the Island of Kauai. I played trombone in a full orchestra which was hired by a major US corporation to play for their awards banquet. We were flown to Kauai and put up in the Sheraton Hotel at Poipu Beach. Nice work if you can get it. ;^)
Anyway, the morning after the performance, some of us stayed a while and enjoyed snorkeling with the green sea turtles (also endangered) and were visited by two monk seals that decided to join us on the beach. Since they are protected, if you ever see one, you should not approach it and try to stay at least 100 feet away - they need the rest. When Hawaii State authorities learn of one on the beach, they rope off the area like a crime scene until the seal leaves. By the way, if you encounter one in the water, say while SCUBA diving, don't try to play with it. They may be cute, but they are wild animals and can be aggressive and been known to bite humans.
Let us hope that with continued efforts to protect and clean up the leeward islands these rare seals can be saved. Thanks for the great pics, George.