UPDATE: Monk Seal Pup a Second-Generation Big Islander
by Dave Smith
***Updated 6:07 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14.***
The mother of a Hawaiian monk seal pup born early this week at a North Kohala beach park is herself a Big Island native.
The mother was born in Waimanu Valley in September 2008, making the pup at least a second-generation Big Islander.
The lineage of the pup’s grandmother is not known.
Justin Viezbicke, Hawaii Island coordinator for the Humpback Whale Sanctuary, said the mother and pup are among about 10 of the critically endangered seals known to have been born on the Big Island over the past decade.
Viezbicke had been keeping tabs on the seal known as W-34/35 – for the pair of tags on her rear flippers – for months, ever since he noticed she was pregnant.
The pup was born at about 6 p.m. Monday at the county’s Keokea Beach Park. Its gender is not yet known.
At a little more than 5 years old, W-34/35 is the second-youngest seal known to have given birth in the main Hawaiian Islands, Viezbicke said.
W-34/35 had a rough early life. Soon after she was weaned she was hooked by a fisherman off the Kohala Coast.
Fortunately, Viezbicke said, the fisherman immediately notified authorities who were able to capture her and take her to Oahu for treatment before returning her to the Big Island.
Researchers believe there is about one monk seal birth each year on the Big Island.
It’s not easy gauging that, however, as the adult population on the island fluctuates from five to 10 with the seals sometimes ranging between islands. One seal has been known to travel as far from the Big Island as Kauai.
At the request of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for which Viezbicke works, the county Department of Parks and Recreation has agreed to close Keokea Beach Park every night at 7:30 p.m. The arrangement is designed to provide the seals with as much protection as possible while still allowing the public some use of the park.
Because monk seals usually stay fairly close to the area of their birth, the pup is likely to be around the area indefinitely even after weaning, which usually takes place at about six weeks.
Viezbicke said NOAA is working with the North Kohala community to enlist their help in protecting the seals, one of only two types of mammals native to Hawaii (the other is the hoary bat).
The public is being asked to stay as far away from the seals as possible. That’s for the protection of both the seals and people, as monk seals can be very protective of their young.
“We’re asking people to give her as much space as possible,” Viezbicke said. “If the mother seal is making noises at you, then you’re too close.”
Contact between people and the animals can have negative implications.
Viezbicke said a male monk seal born in May at Kamilo Beach in Ka`u unfortunately became conditioned to humans, partly because he was fed by them at nearby Ka`alualu Bay.
In October, it playfully nipped at two athletes swimming in Kailua-Kona’s bay while preparing for the Ironman Triathlon. To avoid further conflicts, the seal was eventually relocated to the island of Ni`ihau.
Posted at 5:29 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13:
The county is closing a North Kohala beach park early each night to protect a Hawaiian monk seal recently born there.
To protect the newborn pup and its mother, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked the county Department of Parks and Recreation to close Keokea Beach Park at 7:30 p.m. nightly. The closures will be in effect until further notice.
Hawaiian monk seals are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and under state laws. Anyone who intentionally harasses, harms or kills a monk seal is subject to penalties that include a five-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $50,000.