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Officials Advise of Dangers Swimming Near Hawaiian Monk Seal and Pup

May 20, 2021, 12:12 PM HST
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Officials express safety concerns for beachgoers as a Hawaiian monk seal rests with her 3-week-old pup on O‘ahu’s Kaimana Beach.

Volunteers and staff from Hawai‘i Marine Animal Response (HMAR) are at the beach during daylight hours to provide information about Kaiwi and the pup’s behaviors. Lifeguards from the City and County of Honolulu’s Ocean Safety Division are making repeated loudspeaker announcements each day when the seals go into the water for one of their many exploratory swims.

David Schofield, NOAA Fisheries Regional Marine Mammal Response Coordinator, is one of the county, state, and federal authorities who worry, that due to the large number of people enjoying the water off Kaimana Beach, someone is likely to get attacked.

“Monk seals are docile on land, but don’t let that fool you. In the ocean, they are fast and strong, and in the case of a mother in the process of weaning a pup, she is very protective…anyone who is considered a threat could be attacked and seriously hurt,” Schofield explained.

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On Thursday, Earl Miyamoto, a retired staffer from the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources, recounted a Hawaiian monk seal attack while working on Kaua‘i nearly 12 years ago, to try and convince swimmers, snorkelers, and paddlers to stay out of the ocean fronting O‘ahu’s Kaimana Beach.

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On Dec. 22, 2009, Miyamoto said he was on pup watch, keeping an eye on a mother Hawaiian monk seal and her newborn on a remote beach in the Poʻipū area.

Miyamoto recalled getting calls from the Kaua‘i Police Department later in the day informing him that the mother seal attacked a swimmer. He responded to the scene and found a 28-year-old woman visiting from Washington State bleeding profusely from her nose and mouth, down her arm, and on her buttocks.

When the mother seal attacked her, in what a witness described as a “lunge out of the water,” the animal grabbed her by the face. Her face mask and snorkel, in Miyamoto’s opinion, saved her life. There were bite marks under her chin, and later, after reporting persistent headaches, it was discovered her skull was fractured just above her eyes.

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A pup watch volunteer who witnessed the attack told Miyamoto that the entire episode lasted no more than 30 seconds and then the mom rejoined her pup, and they swam back to the beach.

The day following the incident Miyamoto visited the woman in the hospital. While there were only puncture wounds on the woman’s hand, she told him she could hear bones cracking when she reached up to try and free her face from the seal’s mouth. Doctors ended up pinning every single bone in her hand; broken by the massive force of the seal’s jaw.

“She doesn’t blame the monk seal…like any wild animal it was simply protecting her pup,” Miyamoto said of the injured woman.

With a mom and pup now at Kaimana Beach, Miyamoto advises not to go into the water.

“The ocean is the seals’ home. I don’t care how strong a swimmer you are, if that seal decides you are a threat, you have no chance of escaping…it’s just not worth it,” he said.

Images and video are courtesy of DLNR.

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