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Monk seal exiled to remote island to protect divers


Hawaiian monk seal (NOAA)
Hawaiian monk seal (NOAA)

A five-year-old male Hawaiian monk seal has been relocated from Big Island after developing a potentially hazardous attitude towards scuba divers and snorkellers.

The seal, designated RL72, was first reported for nipping at divers’ fins in the Makako Bay area on the west side of the Hawaiian island towards the end of last year.

What might at first have been regarded as playful behaviour soon developed into nipping at other items of dive-gear and limbs, and attempting to mount divers. And when RL72 bit a diver’s head, the authorities took a closer interest.

Hawaiian monk seals (Neomonachus schauinslandi) are endemic to and protected in Hawaii but are among the world’s most endangered seal species. At around 1,600, the population is now only about one-third of historic levels, according to the USA’s National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

RL7 was captured at NOAA’s request by staff from Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Centre on 4 June and has been taken to remote Kamole (Laysan Island), populated by an estimated 200 other Hawaiian monk seals. 

Laysan Island (Dan Polhemus : US Fish and Wildlife Service)
Laysan Island (Dan Polhemus / US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Video reviews

After reviewing video footage of the head-bite (which did not cause serious injury), NOAA said that it “did not observe any indication that the diver had been interacting with the seal or provoked the bite in any way.

“RL72’s behaviour was very concerning, and cause for potential intervention,” it said. “We actively monitored the seal to determine whether a move was necessary for the seal’s long-term welfare and for public safety.” 

Initially water-users had simply been warned to retreat and leave the sea if threatened, but any hope on NOAA’s part that RL72 would transfer its interest from humans to other seals faded as its “interactive behaviour” escalated.

“We reviewed multiple videos of divers ignoring and swimming away from RL72 when the seal approached, but RL72 pursued them, biting at dive-gear and attempting to mount them,” stated NOAA. “In one instance, RL72 mounted and held onto a diver during a daytime dive. 

“In another instance, RL72 bit a snorkeller on the back, deep enough to penetrate their wetsuit and cause a puncture injury. 

“Taken together, the combination of RL72 holding onto people under water and biting unprovoked presented the risk of seriously injuring or drowning people.” 

Innately curious

Monk seals that grow up in the wild would not normally engage with humans unless food or social interaction was regularly offered by them.

“Seals are innately curious, especially when young,” says NOAA. “Once a seal has established a behaviour pattern of interacting with humans, it can be extremely hard – and potentially impossible – to change the seal’s behaviour.”

It advises all water-users to stay at least 15m away from Hawaiian monk seals (45m from mothers and pups), to move away if approached and leave the water if the seal pursues, and never to feed seals.

Also read: Britain’s seals need YOU!, Farne Islands diving above 18m gets the seal of approval, Top photography tips for diving with seals, BDMLR rescue stricken seal trapped on rocks

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