A Beautiful Hawaiian Monk Seal at Keauhou

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A Beautiful Hawaiian Monk Seal at Keauhou

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island
Sep 26, 2012

There’s a big, fat Hawaiian monk seal asleep in the tide pools outside Keauhou Beach Resort right now. I spotted her when I checked into my room and—like I always do first-thing—yanked open the curtains to check out the view. The female seal sleeps on a rock a few hundred feet away from a huge heiau, making me think how Hawaiian monk seals bridge time.

Known as living fossils, according to science, the first Hawaiian monk seals slipped through the watery gap between North and South America some 11 to 13 million years ago. That means this girl’s forebears were around when the first Polynesians ventured to Hawaii. And, yet, monk seals do not populate Hawaiian cultural stories. They aren’t popular stars in mele, oli and hula. They are not common aumakua, ancestral gods. In my mind, there’s a very good reason for the scant evidence of Hawaiian monk seals in Hawaii’s culture. It’s the same reason why Hawaii’s oral storytelling tradition recounts few (any?) tales of two endemic ducks--a goose-like one and a kiwi-like one. And that is, these animals made for easy pickings. Neither duck could fly and one was near, if not, blind, while the monk seal isn’t exactly the Usain Bolt of marine mammals. It makes sense that these would be the animals first to be extirpated upon human arrival—for food, feathers, fur or other.

Honestly, a Hawaiian monk seal was the last thing I expected to see—and, hence, write about—during my visit to Big Island, and the irony is I almost postponed my trip to Big Island by two days because of a couple monk seals on Kauai that scientists hoped to outfit with critter cams—that is, specially designed and engineered video cameras. It’s hoped the footage from these cameras will give scientists clues as to why Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands are surviving better than the seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Turtles, yes. I expected to see those in the tide pools around Keauhou Beach Resort. But not a beautiful, female monk seal stretched out on a swath of pahoehoe lava rock.

I think I noticed the pahoehoe lava, because I’m reading Isabella Bird’s 1873 Six Months in the Sandwich Islands. In it, she writes about the two kinds of lava in Hawaii:

From this grove we travelled as before in single file over an immense expanse of lava of the kind called pahoehoe, or satin rock, to distinguish it from the a-a, or jagged, rugged, impassable rock. …It [pahoehoe] lies in hummocks, in coils, in rippled waves, in rivers, in huge convolutions, in pools smooth and still, and in caverns which are really bubbles. Hundreds of square miles of the island are made up of this and nothing more. A very frequent aspect of pahoehoe is the likeness on a magnificent scale of a thick coat of cream drawn in wrinkling folds to the side of a milk-pan. This lava is all grey, and the greater part of its surface is slightly roughened. Wherever this is not the case the horses slip upon it as upon ice.

Another observation I made while reading is Bird’s frequent mention of ‘ulu. Or breadfruit.

I am here to attend a festival devoted to breadfruit. When I told a visitor at the airport why I was heading to Big Island, she responded, “Breadfruit? There’s a festival for breadfruit?”

Indeed, Hawaii is like that. Any reason for a festival. Taro. Maui onion. Coconut. Coffee. Spam. And breadfruit. Once there were giant groves of farmed breadfruit trees that crossed political boundaries and family lands. Today, what few breadfruit trees grow in Hawaii are, strangely, hard to find. Friday night, I will attend a seminar by environmental resource specialist Noa Kekuewa Lincoln who will speak on the past, present, and future of breadfruit.

Isabella Bird encountered breadfruit trees, pahoehoe lava and a long list of native plants that she could name by their Hawaiian and Latin names. That makes me wonder if she ever encountered a Hawaiian monk seal during her six-month visit. Sure, it would have been a rare sighting, but it would show they were around then. Some people claim Hawaiian monk seals were transplants by the government in modern times. I may not be able to help Hawaiian monk seals on Kauai right now, but maybe I can help them in another way. By reading. Oh, what a sweet excuse.


Susan | Sep 27, 2012 08:49 AM

A visit to Laurel Brier's garden yesterday included one of the most prolific ulu trees I've heard of. Hers has been giving fruit continuously since last January. Right now I would guess the tree has about 100 ulu, in various sizes and stages of development, along with new blossoms, indicating it is not about to stop producing. Apparently, both taro and breadfruit were carried here by the early Polynesians but they had to rely on taro as their year 'round staple since the breadfruit output was limited to a shorter "season." Trees in places like Tonga and Fiji, closer to the Equator, will produce year around and is the chosen staple. Apparently Laurel's tree didn't get the memo and just keeps going to town. Laurel wonders if it's climate change. Luckily ulu is very versatile and freezes well. We were served some very tasty Ulu Fries with dinner, cooked in a fragrant, cold-pressed coconut oil. What a treat!

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