Babysitting the Hawaiian Monk Seal

Lloyd Miyashiro said March through June on Kauai is babysitting season.

That’s because he and the 100 other volunteers who keep an eye on Kauai’s monk seal population will be welcoming brand new pups.

“Pup-sitting is like babysitting, volunteers take shifts to make sure the mom and pup are OK, and to talk to people that come out,” Miyashiro said. “A lot of what we do is educational outreach.”

Jamie Thomton, Kauai’s monk seal coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said there haven’t been any monk seal pups yet this season, but everyone is gearing up for their arrival.

“We think the first one might be born in about a month,” Thomton said. “We have a couple (moms that will pup soon), but we don’t know the timing.”

Monk seals don’t pup every year, and it’s difficult to tell when a pregnant mamma is going to pop. It’s easier if a seal has given birth the year before, Thomton said, because that establishes a rough time frame for the upcoming birth.

“We wish we had better indicators. Sometimes you’ll see the belly moving — like the baby kicking and that kind of thing,” Thomton said. “But typically we get a call saying, ‘Hey, there’s a monk seal pup up here.’”

Monk seals usually give birth at night, or early in the morning, and the whole event is fast — compared to humans.

“It only takes a few, maybe four or five, contractions. It’s similar to horses and cows, that kind of quick birthing process,” Thomton said. “They don’t have big heads like us.”

As soon as a mom and pup are found on the beaches, Thomton said volunteers set up barricades about 150 feet from the pair and keep people away as much as possible.

“Mother monk seals are very protective and we don’t recommend swimming, snorkeling, or spear fishing anywhere close to a protective mother,” Thomton said. “They’ve bitten people before.”

Monk seals usually like to give birth on the remote northeastern beaches on the island, but once in a while they like to make their way to more populated beaches.

Thomton said when that happens — as long as she’s not in labor — volunteers will get in her space with crowd boards and encourage her to find a different beach.

“A pregnant seal at Poipu, for instance, that’s a bad place for a seal to pup, so we’d move her out of there,” Thomton said. “Typically we don’t move them, but that’s in our tool bag.”

Once the monk seal pup has been born, the pup and mom hang out for between four and seven weeks while the pup nurses. The moms don’t eat during that time, though, so after about seven weeks, they leave their pup and swim into the open ocean.

“They leave, but the pups stay around for a couple of months, so we keep pup-sitting,” Miyashiro said.

Last year, four pups were born on Kauai, and the prior year there were five baby monk seals that arrived on the island. Thomton said he’s hoping for a healthy number this year.

“Two years ago, a two-week old pup was killed by some stray hunting dogs,” Thomton said. “We were able to catch them in live traps, but they were pretty wild.”

State law requires that dogs be on a leash on state land — which beaches fall under, Thomton said, so there usually isn’t a problem with dogs attacking baby seals, but since it’s happened, he encourages extra vigilance during pupping season.

“It’s not so much off-leash dogs, but we just want people to watch out,” Thomton said. “Just keep an eye (on your pets).”

Written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published on April 15, 2016. Photo taken by Donna Else. 

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