Monk Seal Makes First Appearance at Kailua Beach
by Dave Smith
Visitors to the beach fronting a hotel in downtown Kailua-Kona Sunday included one of the state’s largest native mammals.
A Hawaiian monk seal spent most of the day “mingling” with the beach-goers at the small stretch of sand at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.
According to Justin Viezbicke of the National Marine Fisheries Service, this female nicknamed “Makaiwa” has also been seen hauled up on Oahu beaches making her one of up to a dozen monk seals who at least occasionally call the Big Island home.
Four or five of the endangered seals pretty much are believed to be full-time Big Island residents, said Viezbicke, programs coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
Of the roughly 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals believed to be in existence, roughly 100 live in the main Hawaiian Islands. The majority live in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
While Makaiwa has been seen elsewhere on the Big Island, Viezbiecke said he believes this is the first time she’s visited downtown Kailua.
“As far as I know, she has never been seen there before at that beach,” he said.
It’s not known were Makaiwa was born, although judging from her sightings, researchers figure she could be as much as 15 years old.
While there is still much research to be done, it is believed the life span is a monk seal is about 30 years.
Hawaiian monk seals are known to rest on land during the day after feeding at night.
Viezbiecke said some of the beach-goers were concerned about the reason for her presence.
“She was just taking a break,” said Viezbiecke, who was on hand at the beach most of the day to monitor the situation.
Keeping the public from bothering the seal is more challenging at such a small beach.
Viezbiecke said at first lines were drawn in the sand to keep people away and later signs were posted.
“Most everybody did a good job keeping their distance,” he said, although a few people had to be reminded to stay away.
There is no law establishing a set standoff distance, but a 2010 law makes it a felony with a fine of up to $50,000 for anyone who harms a Hawaiian monk seal.
State and federal authorities are currently investigating the suspicious deaths of four monk seals within the past year on Kauai and Molokai.
Keeping a distance from resting seals is good for both the animals and observers. Hawaiian monk seals have been known to be aggressive, especially if pups are involved, and scientists say it’s best for humans to just leave them alone.
“They’re wild animals,” Viezbiecke noted.
There have been instances – including some on the Big Island – where monk seals become too familiar with humans and begin to have aggressive interactions. In the worst cases, the animals have had to be relocated nearly 1,000 miles away to Johnston Island.
Still, the appearance of one at a beach can be a positive thing.
“It’s a great opportunity to educate the public,” Viezbiecke said.