The first baby monk seal born this year is resting its tiny head on a North Shore beach. The birth is big news, as the Hawaiian monk seal is a critically endangered species and could face extinction within the next few years, and with recent, unsolved cases involving suspicious monk seal deaths, wildlife officials are extra vigilant to ensure this pup survives.
Born Wednesday, the 20-pound newborn is learning the ways of the world from its mother identified as R5AY, or better known as “Honey Girl.”
People are expected to keep its distance from the seals, about 150 feet away. That’s because the first month is a critical time for newborn monk seals. After about six weeks, the mother leaves, so the pup needs to learn the skills to survive. But if the pup becomes acclimated to humans, it could lessen their chances of survival.
According to officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), they’ve had problems in the past where monk seals become a public concern when they become used to the company of humans.
“You can imagine a 300 or 400 pound seal who wants to play with people, and the person doesn’t want to play in the water anymore. That could be a safety issue,” said David Schofield, marine mammal health program coordinator for the NOAA.
Keeping a respectable distance from monk seals will not only keep humans and seals safe, but give them a better chance at thriving, and eventually, bring more monk seals into the world.
Because this is “Honey Girl’s” 9th pup, the NOAA considers her their most successful breeding mother. But she is only one of about 1,100 monk seals left and the population is declining. Schofield said “we would need to have about 2,800 animals for many years in order for the population to be considered stable.”
Schofield hopes that beachgoers keep their distance from monk seals, but he acknowledges that it’s very easy to mistake a monk seal for a large rock. If you encounter one on the beach, remain as neutral as possible, and minimize your disturbance.
“Monk seals, by nature, are not aggressive animals,” he said. “But if you get between a mom and her pup of any animal in the animal kingdom, you will be on the receiving end of mother’s wrath.” There have been rare instances in the past where humans have been bitten by monk seal mothers when they felt their pup was threatened.