Language of the Sea
Posted By NOWRAMP Staff
Photography by Jim Watt
September 14, 2002
been running through a squall filled night a hundred and
seventeen miles west from French
Frigate Shoals. The morning sky has a soft, pastel look
to it. The colors on the clouds give the impression of baby's
clothes strewn about an indigo room. The sun is awake but
seems far away and can't quite touch the sky with its fire.
There is a softness to the sea as well, which often happens
after a squall. So in this wild place the gentle soul of
the morning greets us kindly. In the distance Gardner Pinnacles
raises out of the water, white dung glowing like the tip
of a snow covered Himalayan peak.
is the least visited island in the Leewards principally
because there is no safe anchorage. Basically, it is two
rocks standing one hundred and seventy feet high and two
hundred yards long. Not much of an island. It does have
an underwater shelf that is quite shallow and extends five
miles in all directions from the island, save for the northwest
where it stretches out into the Pacific for ten miles. In
the early 1960's the U.S. Military dynamited the top of
the island so it could land a helicopter. Why they wanted
to land a helicopter in this remote place with little anchorage
was never explained.
has become the custom of the Expedition's Documentation
team, I am cast first into the water to do a quick recon
of a likely looking area to find the best site for the photography
and video. I take this opportunity to see the face of the
underwater world before it is sullied with the eyes of others.
I don't swim a hundred yards before a large monk seal rises
from the mid-water column to check me out. It swims toward
me in a friendly fashion, but I swim away and quickly complete
my recon mission trying hard not to violate the law by altering
the behavior of a critically endangered species. The area
shows big ulua, I count seven over forty pounds and two
'monsters' at close to a hundred pounds. An eagle ray swims
by, and then I hit a 'dead spot' with little activity, thus
declaring the early sightings as the place to 'jump.'
the others are gearing up I drift back to where I last saw
the ulua. They have disappeared but the monk seal spies
me resting on the surface and swims over to investigate.
I stop swimming and float stilled on the surface, the seal
with its large eyes and scarred face takes me in. Upon eye
contact it comes right up to me like a friendly dog. I know
that this highly endangered animal is protected and off
limits to all, and I don't quite know what to do. Hawai`i
has only two species of land mammals alive today that arrived
under their own power. The Hawaiian Hoary Bat, whom I've
never met, who flew in from North America, and the Hawaiian
Monk Seal who's ancestors existed some fifteen million years
ago and likely originated in the Atlantic Ocean. Of all
the pinnipeds (i.e., seals, sea lions, elephant seals) Monk
Seals have the most ancient lineage. They are characterized
as a "living fossil" (something I have been accused
of from time to time), because some of its anatomical, physiological,
or behaviorioral characteristics have scarcely changed over
millennium. They are isolationists, unlike their brethren
found in cooler waters north and south of the Hawaiian Islands.
Thus, with no predators other than very large sharks, they
have no real defensive strategies to protect themselves.
Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean Monk Seals
on his second voyage to the New World. Apparently, he killed
his fair share near the island of Haiti. Five hundred years
later that species is extinct.
The Hawaiian Monk Seal has been the subject of hunting expeditions
since the early nineteenth century. In 1824 the sealing
brig Aiona was thought to have killed the last seal. However
under the protection in the Bird Reservation, enforced by
U. S. Navy patrols, the seals slowly recovered. Over the
years the population has been seesawing to the point where
the population has stabilized to around 1,350 seals.
to say the Hawaiian Monk Seal lives an extremely fragile
existence. And I for one am in complete accordance with
the rules laid down by the Marine Mammal Protection Act
prohibiting harassment or any other form of action causing
harm to the seals. This is seal territory and has been for
a lot longer than man found his way into these remote islands.
encounter with the seal is not finished. Though I make no
move towards the seal I also do not swim away, I can't,
I am enchanted by its sweet face and gentle nature. It does
a loop beneath me, and then waits in the water ten feet
away. The language of the sea is in the body movements of
its inhabitants, it wants to communicate. But I resist the
temptation. I understand that my encounter with the seal
is only an isolated incident, but many isolated incidents
soon become harassment and the seal may quickly become habituated
to human contact. Once wild animals become used to humans
they often lose their wild character and get into situations
with humans that may force their relocation, or worse, destruction.
I don't want that fate to begin with me. Forcing myself
to pull myself back into the zodiac, I hang in the water
for one final glance. Seeming to sense my retreat, the seal
quickly bends its flexible toward me then it drifts up and
nudges my arm with its highly sensitive whiskers. It senses
the neoprene rubber of my wet suit and seemingly satisfied
that such a skin does not belong in its world, turns and
swims away. Leaving me with the moment of deep gratefulness
that such creatures still exist and we must do everything
in our collective powers to keep it so.