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You are here: /main/research expeditions/September/October 2007/Monk seal

Monk Seal Encounter

by Darla White

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Nehu. Credit James Watt

On the first dive of the day I was out snorkeling over the benthic teams taking photographs.  We were at a back reef site at Pearl and Hermes Atoll just inside the barrier reef in a shallow patch reef area.  The sun was obscured by high clouds and the threat of periodic squalls lingered in the humid gusty air.  The water was surprisingly warm for this far north…seemingly warmer than at French Frigate Shoals, though our temperature gauges told us it was the same.  The water had good clarity, some current at the surface, and there was no shortage of fish.   Nehu glittered silvery blue in the water column as aggregations of kala kept close to their rocky patch reefs, a pair of young mu lingered over the sand and rubble between two reefs, a school of manini traveled around grazing, large colorful uhu meandered about, and the hinalea luahine and ‘a‘awa seemed curious yet cautious about their visitors.  An ‘omilu in a dark phase (almost black) came up swift and close to each diver in turn, investigating the scene.  I wandered over to the next transect line and encountered a very large ‘omilu stationary just next to the bit of reef with its mouth open.  This intrigued me so I looked closer and realized it had a cleaner wrasse sinuously weaving in and out of its mouth.  I tried to capture this moment…the elegant apex predator, sleek and powerful, here being preened at a cleaning station by a small colorful wrasse.  Trying out a new camera, I was still learning the limitations in underwater shots. 

My photos did not come out quite as nice as I would have liked.   I turned my attention elsewhere to find a new focus.  I had no idea that my next subject awaited right behind me.  To my delight, and then to my shock, I saw a young monk seal ensconced with fishing nets around its neck, trailing thick heavy line over six feet in length.  It seemed to want help, coming so curiously close to me, yet fearful and stressed by the object so obviously tight and burdensome.  I watched as the monk seal rubbed its body and the net repeatedly against the vertical sides of the rocky reef structure, attempting to free itself from its bondage.  It was unknowingly making the situation worse.  The netting needed to come off over its head.  It looked like an easy fix…but the monk seal kept distance.  The ‘omilu from the cleaning station showed up with interest in the seal and out of the blue appeared an ‘ulua.  Both jacks pursued the seal out of sight.   

Entangled monk seal
The entangled monk seal.

Some of the divers on the benthic team witnessed the monk seal, too.  The helplessness we all felt was excruciating.  The horror and tragedy of such a fragile species vulnerable to the hundreds of tons of marine debris that finds its way here to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands should not go unnoticed.  The damage by the net was still minimal at this point, but it will get worse and the animal will most likely die, either weakened to predation or from injuries due to the net itself. Our encounter with the monk seal weighed heavy in our hearts and minds, and will forever be etched in our memories. For more about monk seals, go to:

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