It was the majestic Laysan albatross that brought me to a North Shore Kauai beach last week. But the big splash seaward that caught my eye reminded me another regular Hawaii visitor had returned. Both the oversized seabirds and large marine mammals migrate to the Hawaiian Islands this time every year to breed.
A few minutes later, as I rounded a rocky point, my eyes next landed on a sleeping Hawaiian monk seal, her path from sea to shore clearly outlined by the trail she left in her wake.
I’m not the only one celebrating a big birthday this year. Tomorrow, December 28th, marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act
When President Nixon signed the ESA into law on December 28, 1973, he said, “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans."
Hawaii’s heritage in conservation circles has come to be known as the, “Endangered Species Capital of the World.” There’s good and bad to this moniker. One spin of a globe helps explain things. Over millennia, as plants and animals found their way to the very isolated Hawaiian Islands, before even the arrival of the first Polynesians, they found an environment unlike any they had known. In order to survive, these species had to evolve. In doing so, they often formed completely new plants and animals—what are called “endemic,” making Hawaii one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. That’s the cool part, because you can see plants growing in Hawaii’s soil, and birds and butterflies flying through the air, and reef fish and marine invertebrates in the water that you won’t see anywhere else in the world. To me, this is what makes Hawaii so special—our unusual plants and animals that paint a natural picture wholly unique to Hawaii.
But once the first Polynesians arrived, things started to change, and they haven’t stopped. Each and every introduced plant and animal—and we humans are the biggest culprits—has altered the environment, driving many of Hawaii’s endemic species to extinction. That’s the not-cool part.
Just down the beach from where I happened upon the resting monk seal, I knew I could probably find Green sea turtles basking in the sun. A few years ago, a few even started to nest in the Main Hawaiian Islands again. That wasn’t happening 40 years ago when the easiest place to find turtles was listed on restaurant menus under the “soup” heading.
The Green sea turtle was listed as endangered in 1978. Now, after the efforts of many different people, the species has rebounded, and there’s even talk about de-listing the turtle.
Neither the Green sea turtle nor the Humpback whale—also experiencing a successful recovery—are endemic to Hawaii, but the Hawaiian monk seal is.
The female I happened upon last week was a mature adult with a bleach mark—provided by scientists—that identified her as V23. Apart from a couple cookie cutter shark wounds—long healed—she looked quite healthy. The outlook for Hawaiian monk seals isn’t looking as rosy as that for the sea turtles and Humpback whales. The population is declining at a rate of 4% per year. But with the work of dedicated scientists, a robust volunteer network, and the protection of the Endangered Species Act, I am hopeful. Maybe one day in the not-so-distant future, I’ll walk this beach and find V23 with a newborn pup. If I do, I’ll let you know.
Happy birthday, ESA.