"There's a monk seal playing with a fisherman right here on our beach."
Playing with, I thought skeptically. More like, fleeing from. Then I heard the story.
Valerie had been walking on the beach when she saw a seal pop its head up near a man spearfishing in waist-deep water. The seal swam shoulder-to-shoulder with the man, occasionally nudging him. The man gently pushed the seal away, but it wouldn't leave.
The story seemed inconceivable to me until she added, "They came in so close, I waded in. And it touched me."
"A monk seal touched you?" I said.
"I know you're not supposed to get near them. But it came to me. Just like with the fisherman. It seems to crave the contact."
By this time, I was already pulling on my swimming suit. "I've got to see this," I told her. "Grab your snorkel gear."
Moments later, Valerie and I found the fisherman. He was minding his own business, looking for octopus. Directly behind him, playing with a trailing line and a net full of octopus, was the friendliest monk seal pup in the world. He bounded around the man like an exuberant puppy.
"Excuse me," I said to the fisherman. "Do you know this seal?"
"He seems to like you," I said.
"I can't get rid of him. He's ruining the fishing."
"Maybe he's attracted to your octopuses."
"Naw. I gave him one. He wouldn't eat it."
The mildly irritated man returned to his fishing; Valerie and I snorkeled behind. The pup checked us out and, yes, even rubbed against us. But his main interest was with the fisherman.
After a while, Valerie and I came in, leaving the spirited pup with his reluctant new friend.
The pup, I learned later, was the "Kaneohe Kid," a Hawaiian monk seal born last spring on a Mokapu Peninsula beach. When its mother weaned the little male, officials of the National Marine Fisheries Service decided to leave it in Oahu waters and see what happened. Perhaps it would become an ambassador, endearing people to its species.
It endeared itself a little too much. The wild animal got so friendly, it soon found trouble. Once, managers had to remove a fishhook from its mouth. Also, concerned citizens called constantly, reporting incidents similar to the one above.
Then, just when officials decided it was time to move the affectionate pup to a remote area, the calls stopped. The Kaneohe Kid has disappeared.
Managers fear the pup is dead but don't know for sure. If you see this friendly seal, you can help him by calling the National Marine Fisheries Service at 943-1221.
Resist the urge to touch this or any other Hawaiian monk seal. These critically endangered mammals are protected by strict federal laws. Also, they can bite, even in play.