The Hawaiian monk seal is one of Kalaupapa's most iconic and endangered mammals. Currently, the population is a third of the historic population level. Monk seals are endemic to the Hawaiian archipelago and Johnston Atoll, meaning they exist nowhere else in the world. They are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and state law. Only about 300-400 monk seals reside in the main Hawaiian Islands, and about 1,200 seals are estimated to inhabit the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Threats to monk seals include, but are not limited to, food limitation, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat loss, and disease.
Safety and Respect
If you see monk seals in Kalaupapa, or anywhere, give them plenty of space, and do not swim if they are on the beach. Follow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) viewing guidelines and view solo monk seals from at least 50 feet (15 meters) away—on land and in water. View mother seals and their pups from at least 150 feet (about 45 meters) away.
Eyeballing 150 feet can be tricky so consider using the Rule of Thumb. Fully extend your arm away from your body between you and the seal and hold your thumb straight up like you are hitchhiking. Close one eye and look towards your thumb with your open eye. Can your thumb completely cover and block the seal from your view? If so, you are at a good viewing distance. If not, please back up.
Getting too close to a mom and pup can cause the mother to become protective, stressed, and potentially aggressive. Use a telephoto lens to get that close-up look in your monk seal photos!
Pups, Life Cycle, and Fun Facts
In just 5-7 weeks after birth, monk seal pups can go from 25 pounds to 200 pounds by nursing from their mothers! During this time, they molt their fur and pack on a lot of extra blubber. This fat provides the necessary nutrients as they learn to hunt for food and navigate on their own. Newborn pups are black; as they age, they shed their black fur for a new grey coat, which will fade to brown over time—until they molt again the following year.
Monk seals spend two-thirds of their life at sea. They’ll molt completely once a year which helps keep their coat clean and free of algae growth. They can live to over 30 years, though life expectancy is often shorter. They can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes and dive more than 1,800 feet! However, an average dive is much shorter and shallower. Though they don’t migrate, they can travel hundreds of miles throughout the Hawaiian archipelago.
Females usually begin to reproduce when they are 5-10 years old and often return to the same beach where they were born. Mother monk seals generally give birth every 1-2 years to a single pup. Each subsequent year, their birthing dates are slightly later until they take a year off, and then the cycle starts again with an early season birth.
The beaches at Kalaupapa have all the characteristics of favorable pupping locations—plenty of shallow areas protected from big waves and predators, minimal human disturbance, and plenty of available food in the nearby reef. In fact, of the 25 Hawaiian monk seals born in the main Hawaiian Islands in 2022, 12 were born on the shores of Kalaupapa!
At Kalaupapa, we coordinate with NOAA Fisheries to help conserve monk seals. A park marine biologist walks along beaches, spots the seals, takes photographs, and records the data observed. These surveys track when the new pups are born, how much they grow, and when they wean from their moms. Marine biologists look for identifying tags, bleach marks, and scars to tell monk seals apart. Monk seal surveys allow park biologists to respond to seal emergencies, such as injuries and hookings from fishing gear. Surveys also help biologists understand seal monk generations and family patterns. Surveys and photos of monk seals are always conducted under a NOAA Fisheries permit and in partnership with NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.
Test your virtual marine biologist by "surveying" the photo on the right. How many monk seals can you find in the picture? At Kalaupapa, it is common to find several monk seal moms and pups gathered on rocks nearby each other as they rest and the pups feed. If you spotted six seals in the photo, you are correct!
Generations of Monk Seals
The park's first known mother, nicknamed Mama Eve, was first sighted in 1997. Since then, Kalaupapa has had an average of over six seal pups born each year. The pupping average has been increasing and in the last couple of years, from 2018 to 2022, the average was 12 pups a year. These generations of seals highlight the importance of Kalaupapa’s role in the recovery of this endangered species.
Last updated: December 19, 2022