The Hawaiian Monk Seal Is Native

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The Hawaiian Monk Seal Is Native

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Maui
Jun 07, 2009

What do marine mammal first responders do for fun in the sun? We practice transporting cetaceans. Because we do not have access to live animals, though, we opt for substitutes. Even though the sun was scorching during this afternoon’s training, at least the animal weighed next to nothing.

The mayor of Maui addressed our team of 50-some participants at this past week’s Hawaiian Monk Seal and Cetacean Stranding Response Network conference. Charmaine Tavares once served as a lifeguard and, later, taught school. Now, she looks like somebody’s grandmother, which, no doubt, she is. In 2006, she was elected mayor of Maui. I have no idea how she’s doing as mayor, but I do like the fact that the number one item on her state of the county address earlier this year was “renewable energy and energy efficiency.” I also know Maui made history last summer as Hawaii’s first municipal ban on plastic shopping bags. That may have been the County Council’s doing, but Mayor Tavares’ signed the bill into law.

When Mayor Tavares addressed us, she said, “The ocean is important to the well-being of the planet. We must preserve our marine mammals for a long, long, long, long time, because they were here before us, and we need to honor our ancestors.”

Those in the room applauded her words.

Because the Hawaiian monk seal appeared on the main Hawaiian Islands relatively recently, some people do not consider the pinniped to be a native species. But it seems that the seal’s relatively recent appearance in the main Hawaiian Islands is really a re-appearance. NOAA’s Marine Mammal Response Coordinator Dr. David Schofield presented a historical timeline of the monk seal in Hawaii. In my mind, the most notable items in the research that he presented included:

  1. In the late 1960s, scientists unearthed the remains of a Hawaiian monk seal on Big Island. The bones date back to 1400 – 1750 A.D.
  2. Shipping documents from the 1800s include one that reported an inventory of 1,500 seal skins.
  3. A beach on Moloka’i goes by the Hawaiian place name ‘Ilio pi’i, which literally translates to “climbing dog,” according the book Place Names of Hawaii. Today, this same beach is considered the most important pupping spot in the main Hawaiian Islands for the ‘ilio holo i ka ua ua, the Hawaiian name for the Hawaiian monk seal.

Based on scientific research, those in the know believe Hawaiian monk seals first appeared in our waters some 13 to 15 million years ago.  That's way before the first known person set foot on these islands and before any of the main Hawaiian Islands emerged above water.  Yes, indeed, Hawaiian monk seals are our ancestors.  We must care for them.

We finished the day back on the beach, with dozens of others, facing west. Whenever I visit West Maui, it seems I always find myself at the beach at sunset. It is simply the thing to do.


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