By CAROLYN LUCAS-ZENK
Stephens Media Hawaii
Two marine biologists and a veterinarian have removed a young Hawaiian monk seal from the wild after it bit two triathletes swimming in Kamakahonu Bay on Tuesday.
The 6-month-old seal, weighing 100 pounds, was reportedly following and swimming circles around the triathletes prior to nipping them. Both men had minor injuries and were treated on site. One man was bitten on a knee and the other was bitten on the side of his abdomen, said Michelle Barbieri, a veterinarian with The Marine Mammal Center.
The triathletes were not harassing the pup, which showed no aggression. The animal was likely just exploring or looking for someone to play with. Young seals are often very curious and this behavior can get them into trouble, Barbieri said.
The monk seal is being kept in a cage, under Barbieri’s watch, until wildlife officials decide where to relocate him. They don’t necessarily want to release the animal back in the Kona area, where he may endanger himself or people. Kamakahonu Bay currently is not an ideal spot for the pup. The bay has become an even bigger hot spot, particularly as more than 2,000 triathletes prepare for Saturday’s Ironman World Championship, which begins and ends at Kailua Pier.
A decision should be made in the next 48 hours, Barbieri said at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The decision is taking longer than usual because of the federal government shutdown, which has furloughed numerous federal workers, including those with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Marine Mammal Center works in collaboration with NOAA, she added.
Until then, Barbieri said the pup is “in good hands,” adding he’s in a safe and calm environment, where “he’s adjusting nicely and mostly sleeping.”
Over the past few weeks, The Marine Mammal Center and NOAA has received reports about this seal hauling out on various beaches and on boat ramps in West Hawaii. Around 3:30 p.m. Monday, the pup was at Kailua Pier. Volunteers were dispatched to prevent it from being disturbed. They also informed the public about the importance of protecting this species and the consequences of human interaction. The monk seal stayed for about an hour, then returned to the bay Tuesday, Barbieri said.
The capture crew was dispatched from Oahu to Kailua Bay after receiving the report of a monk seal bite around 7 a.m. from King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. The response to remove the pup from the area was immediate to prevent further engagements, Barbieri said.
This pup is known by the bleach mark on his back, H05. His name, Kamilo, was given to him by kupuna in Ka‘u, where he was born April 10 at Kamilo Bay, said Doug Perrine, a volunteer and Kona photojournalist who specializes in marine wildlife.
“As he has worked his way around South Point and up the Kona Coast, learning how to catch fish in deep water and survive shark attacks, he has returned to the shoreline each day to rest and digest his meal. Instead of other seals, he has encountered large seal-like mammals that often pursue him and attempt to play with him as though he were a puppy dog, rather than a wild animal,” he said. “These uninformed, or sometimes just selfish, people have surrounded him and even tried to pet him, apparently unaware that monk seals normally bite in the course of play and when threatened. People have repeatedly disrupted his needed rest, but even worse have allowed him to imprint on humans, rather than other seals, at his impressionable young age. Effectively, the residents and visitors to this island have given this beautiful, young, rare animal a death sentence.”
While the immediate danger to triathletes is relieved, danger still looms, Perrine warned.
“Kamilo has one last chance to survive and remain on our island, where he is vitally needed for the genetic diversity of our tiny population of monk seals,” he said. “If humans can control their own desires, and give this seal the space he needs — leaving the water or clearing the beach when necessary to give him room — then he may seize his slim chance of survival and make his contribution to our marine ecosystem. If our behavior does not change, he will be removed from our island, and his survival will be less certain.”
The Hawaiian monk seal population is about 1,100. Between 150 and 200 monk seals are living in waters surrounding the main Hawaiian Islands, where sightings are becoming more frequent. The remaining seals are in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where their numbers are declining about 4 percent annually.
Interacting with marine mammals is illegal. They are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and state wildlife laws, which prohibit feeding, harassing, harming or killing the animal.
The penalty for violating state laws protecting marine mammals is a first misdemeanor offense with a fine of not less than $250 and/or by imprisonment of up to a year. However, the penalty for violating the federal Endangered Species Act is much stiffer: up to $50,000, or imprisonment for one year, or both and civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation. The public must keep a minimum distance of 150 feet away from monk seals. Report all sightings and violations to 220-7802, 987-0765 or (888) 256-9840.
Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at firstname.lastname@example.org.