Friendly seal causes concern at Molokai


POSTED: Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Seventeen-month-old monk seal KP2 has won the hearts of Molokai children and adults.

“;I saw the children, and I went in and that little guy loved me,”; said Ingrid Toth, 70, who swims daily off the Kaunakakai Wharf. “;He would swim with me and go around my legs. He would go under me and hug me, and he would go on top of me.”;

But KP2, who was rescued when just a day old and raised by humans, has been hanging around the wharf for months. His weight has jumped from 100 pounds in the spring to between 160 and 175 pounds, said a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official.

NOAA, whose personnel rescued KP2 when he was seen nursing on a rock and rejected by a negligent mother, will be moving him, likely to a remote area on Kauai.

“;The seal poses a public safety risk to members of the Molokai community,”; said David Schofield, a marine mammal specialist with NOAA. “;Some form of intervention will need to take place. It's just the when and where we're still discussing.”;

KP2, the first monk seal pup raised by NOAA, received 7 1/2 months of care in captivity, then was freed into the wild, able to forage for himself and exhibiting normal wild seal behavior, Schofield said.

But once he discovered Kaunakakai Wharf, he was getting fed and taking fish from fishermen, Schofield said.

Federal law protects the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. It is illegal to harass, kill, harm and pursue the animals. As a guideline, humans should try to stay 150 feet away from marine mammals.

Schofield says KP2, the name given by NOAA, has become like the bears of Yellowstone National Park who raid trash bins and cars for food, becoming a potential threat to humans.

But he understands that KP2 has become “;an ambassador; he's become part of the community.”;

Toth, who says KP2 was the size of a German shepherd and has become the size of a small dolphin, recently gave her a scare in the water.

“;He came from the back and wiggled himself on my head,”; said Toth, a 20-year resident of Molokai. “;With his whole weight, he was on top of my head. Not long — seconds. I pushed real hard with my head.”;

Kodi Piirto, 26, of Ontario, Canada, said he saw KP2 a couple of weeks ago.

“;He jumps over and he nudges into you, and it's pretty hilarious,”; he said. “;It's like you're playing with a dog in the water. The little kids will ride him and stuff. He's totally docile.”;

The kids are “;laughing and giggling,”; he said. “;It's a great time.”;

Walter Ritte, a Molokai hunter known for his Hawaiian activism, said, “;We're not quite sure there is a problem.”;

He believes this young seal is like a hoailona, “;a sign that says things are going to be good. ... You got to pay attention.”;

He said when Molokai residents fought the battle of Laau Point, where developers wanted to develop rich fishing grounds, they found seven or eight monk seals.

“;The Hawaiians are trying to survive, and the monk seals are trying to survive,”; he said. “;There's a strong relationship with the seals. Now that the seals are back, the Hawaiians need to have time to reintroduce themselves to the seals. They're like long-lost relatives.”;

Residents are also concerned NOAA will relocate KP2 to Kauai, where there have been two shootings of monk seals.

“;For NOAA to keep interfering without discussing it with us, that will be a big mistake,”; Ritte said.

But Schofield says he has spoken for months with Ritte and others.

Schofield cited the case of R042, a monk seal born in the wild on the Big Island but around people most his life.

When he got to be 300 pounds, he started to play rough and had to be relocated to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.