Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, May 20, 1996

The monk seal and her pup on Mokapu Peninsula.
Official USMC photo by Aaron Martin.

Female monk seal draws
attention but needs privacy

LAST week, on Mother's Day, I received a dinner invitation from friends staying at a Kaneohe Marine Base VIP cottage.

It wasn't until I was driving down the narrow road of the Mokapu Peninsula that I remembered a press release sitting on my desk. In April, a female monk seal had given birth on a beach somewhere near these cottages.

Now there's a noteworthy mother, I thought. Since only about 1,300 Hawaiian monk seals are left in the world, this female's maternal efforts may make a vital contribution to the survival of her entire species.

After greeting our hosts, I asked about the seal mother and her pup. They had heard nothing.

I trudged down to the beach and asked the federal lifeguard about the seal. He knew of the event but believed that the pup was weaned and both seals had left the peninsula.

This seemed early to me, but then, I couldn't remember how long monk seals nursed their pups. I returned to the cottage disgruntled that I hadn't seen the seals and frustrated with myself for not remembering more details.

After several calls the next day, I learned that yes, the mother seal is still on the beach nursing her healthy pup, born April 6.

However, they are on an isolated (and now roped-off) beach on the Kaneohe Bay side of the peninsula. I was looking on the Kailua side.

Female monk seals nurse their young for about six weeks, meaning this Oahu pup's weaning is likely to occur any day now.

After its withdrawal from mother's milk, National Marine Fisheries Service managers will decide if the pup (called a weaner at this stage) needs to be moved to another island or left on Oahu.

THE move would be for its own safety. Five years ago, this same seal mother gave birth to another pup on Oahu's North Shore. Fearing nets or other fishing gear on Oahu would hurt or kill the youngster, officials moved the weaner to Kure Atoll.

That pup, a female, is now alive, well and approaching sexual maturity. Managers are anxiously waiting for signs that this Oahu offspring is pregnant.

But back to the Oahu mother. Although not tagged, this seal, at least 12 years old, is no stranger to Hawaii's marine mammal managers, who recognize her by her unique body scars. Besides giving birth here, this seal occasionally shows up in public places, causing plenty of commotion.

ONCE, she spent the day basking at a popular beach in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. Biologists sat with her for the day to answer questions and manage crowds.

Another time, this resolute female picked a public place on Maui to molt, causing day after day of traffic jams by wildlife enthusiasts.

After learning the history of this particular monk seal, I realized that my inability to find her at Mokapu last week was probably a blessing in disguise. Although this seal appears to tolerate humans more than most, she still needs peace and quiet during this critical period of nursing her young.

This isolated Oahu beach was the perfect place for this extraordinary mother to spend Mother's Day with her new baby.

Susan Scott is a marine science writer and author of three books about Hawaii's environment. Her Ocean Watch column appears Monday in the Star-Bulletin.

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