What They Eat
These carnivores eat fish and other sea creatures they find along the sea floor. Octopus, squid and crustaceans are common prey items for Hawaiian monk seals.
Where They Live
Hawaiian monk seals inhabit the coasts of the Hawaiian Islands. There are less than 1,100 individual seals living on/around the Hawaiian Islands, with the majority around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Hawaiian monk seals rest and breed on atolls and sandy beaches, but spend most of their time in the water.
What They Do
Females give birth to just one pup a year. When the pups are weaned, the mother leaves the pup so she may hunt and care for herself. Weaned pups must learn how to find and catch their own prey.
How They’re Doing
Monk seals are critically endangered, with just over 1,000 remaining. While the population around the main Hawaiian Islands is increasing, the Northwestern Hawaiian Island population is declining due to shortages of food, aggression from other seals, and entanglement with debris such as old fishing nets.
“Paki” (no known translation)
Paki has one light gray spot in the middle of her back and a light-colored belly. She tends to sit straight up in water with head tilted forward, and has two very white centers of her eyes. Weighing between 430-480 pounds, Paki can mostly be found on the deck of the exhibit. She has a particular fondness for piles of ice, and will slurp them up during enrichment sessions.
“Koa” (meaning type of wood, brave, bold, fearless)
Weighing between 440-480 pounds, Koa is slightly darker in color and is one of the more dynamic animals in the group. She enjoys herring, and knows her name.
“Ola” (meaning health or life, well-being, living)
Weighing between 430-480 pounds, Ola enjoys attention and interacting with people. She’s vocal, and enjoys a wide variety of food. Ola often brings toys to her trainers at the start of sessions, and will often vocalize to get attention or when she sees her fish bucket.
Seals have bodies shaped like torpedoes, a great shape for moving swiftly through water. A seal uses its front flippers for steering, and its powerful hind flippers to propel itself. On land, the seals look less graceful, as they inch along like caterpillars.
You might be surprised at how sharp a seal’s canine teeth are, but these carnivores need to devour crunchy crustaceans as well as slippery fish. The monk seal’s front flippers also have claws, which they use for grooming and scratching an itch.
Monk seals are mammals that need to breathe air, but they are known to dive to depths of over 1,800 feet. Their eyes have a protective lens to help them see underwater, and they can close up their nostrils while diving.
A Hawaiian monk seal can stay under water for 20 minutes if it’s sleeping.
Seals have a lot of whiskers, known as vibrissae, which help them find prey in murky or deep water. And even though it looks like they have no ears, they actually have small ear holes that function well both in and out of water.
Unlike a sea lion, a seal cannot tuck its hind flippers underneath its body and move as elegantly on land.
Once a year, these seals stay on land for a few weeks and shed their fur and the upper layer of skin in a process called molting.
How are Hawaiian Monk Seals Doing?
The wild Hawaiian monk seal population has been declining rapidly since the 1950s, due to pup mortality, recreational / commercial fishing, predators, and (human) crowding.
Many seal pups never make it through their first few years of life. After they are weaned, they are vulnerable to predators and are often found starving. Some of the most successful seal conservation programs give these juveniles a “head start,” filling them up with food until they are strong enough to forage on their own, or moving them to places where food is easier to find.
Occasionally there are conflicts between seals that eat fish and fishermen who catch fish. Careful studies have shown that seals eat a wide variety of prey – not just the open ocean fish that humans often catch.
Fishing Hooks and Lines
Hawaiian monk seals become trapped and entangled in discarded fishing nets and ropes more than any other species of seal or sea lion. With just over 1,000 monk seals left in the wild, it is very important to eliminate these dangers from their habitat.
Commercial fishing fleets are prohibited from fishing in sensitive monk seal habitat, but discarded fishing nets don’t follow rules. Hawaiian waters are haunted by abandoned nets that drift in from faraway fishing grounds. Known as “ghost nets,” these drifting traps catch fish, turtles, and seals.
What’s Being Done?
You Can Help
The Minnesota Zoo will collect guest donations at its entrance to support a project in Hawaii on critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals. In and around the far Northwestern Hawaiian Island, Midway, the monk seal population has been declining. The causes of seal mortality are a mystery, particularly for younger seals. Scientists want to better understand the threats these monk seals face. Guest donations will fund the construction of National Geographic Crittercams that will be placed on Midway Island monk seals in 2016 and 2017, as part of a larger project by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) biologists. The compact cameras will provide scientists with a unique glimpse of the monk seals’ world, including the habitats they use, the species they eat, the predators they encounter, and any man-made threats they face. Crittercams have been used successfully to study monk seals in other parts of Hawaii and to engage people in learning about these fascinating animals. The results of the Midway Island monk seal study will help scientists devise conservation strategies to help this critically endangered species.
Staff with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), raise awareness of monk seal issues. They encourage anglers to use seal-friendly barbless fishing hooks and report injured or entangled seals. They also help remove discarded nets and other dangerous garbage. Over a million pounds of debris, much of it plastic, has been removed from seal habitat since 1996.
Over the past several decades, research has contributed to a better understanding of seal survival in specific locations. Giving young seals extra nutrition or even moving them to safer locations along the coast have improved survival. In 2014, a brand new seal hospital opened in Hawaii to treat sick or injured animals.
Helping their Wild Cousins
The seals at the Minnesota Zoo were part of a rehabilitation program, but lacked the skills to survive in the wild. While in the care of marine mammal professionals, these seals have helped their wild relatives by letting scientists study their behavior and physiology up-close, and giving us a better understanding of how to protect wild seals from diseases like distemper and West Nile virus. Even now, they are helping to tell the Hawaiian monk seal story to people in Minnesota who can join in the effort to save them!
Fortunately, there are multiple groups of people working to protect seals and educate beach-goers to keep a safe distance from seals. They also create seal protection areas, teach the public about conservation issues, and help with emergency response for injured seals in the main Hawaiian Islands.
Quick Conservation Facts:
Monk seals are highly endangered and sensitive to human disturbance.
Although they spend two-thirds of their life in the water, Hawaiian monk seals spend time on land in “haul out” locations. While on land, seals rest, give birth, nurse pups, and molt.
Human activity is disruptive to Hawaiian monk seals. This was observed after World War II when the United States military built new bases in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Furthermore, wherever humans go, their dogs follow. Unfortunately dogs can injure or pass diseases on to monk seals.
Recently, seals are finding better food resources along the main Hawaiian Island, where the beaches are heavily populated by people. Uninformed people sometimes try to play with seals in the water or feed them.