By AUDREY McAVOY
HONOLULU — The public will get an up-close view of how Hawaiian monk seals eat, sleep and swim this weekend as researchers share footage taken by cameras attached to the backs of the animals.
Researchers collected the video over the past year after capturing several seals on Kauai, Oahu and Molokai and attaching the cameras to their hides with epoxy while they were sedated.
The effort was part of a study led by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists that aims to help the public better understand a critically endangered species that was rarely seen until recently among Hawaii’s most heavily populated islands.
Now, it’s not unusual for seals to haul up on the white sands of Poipu on Kauai and the rock shoreline of Oahu’s Kaena Point. They have even appeared amid throngs of sunbathing tourists in Waikiki.
The seals are returning to areas they inhabited long before humans moved to Hawaii. Still, some people see them as new arrivals competing for resources. Some fishermen complain the seals are stealing their catch from lines and nets.
“We realize that we’re going through a period of pretty dramatic transition in the Main Hawaiian Islands where just in over a decade, really, have monk seals shown up in any great number and become part of our lives,” said Charles Littnan, lead scientist for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program at NOAA Fisheries.
“With that change comes some stress and discomfort and everyone kind of having to shift to the new norm,” he said.
Video from the cameras provided by the National Geographic Society will be shown at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theater on Saturday. Some of the footage has already been shown on Kauai.
Littnan said he hopes the research will correct misconceptions that the seals are devouring Hawaii’s fish stocks.
For example, he said some people mistakenly believe monk seals eat 600 pounds of fish a day even though adult seals don’t even weigh that much.
“There’s this idea that they’re just these eating machines,” he said. The footage shows, however, that they’re not eating such significant amounts, he said.
Instead the clips show mostly swimming and an “amazing amount of sleeping.” When they do eat, the animals can spend a lot of time getting the food, like one seal that spent 30 minutes trying to pull an octopus out of its hiding place.
The scientists will spend another two years putting cameras on the seals.
Normally with a project like this, Littnan said, scientists would tell the public about their research only after they’ve finished collecting and analyzing their data. But there’s too much conflict over the seals and bad information about them circulating that it would be “negligent” to wait, he said.
There’s a fear misinformation is leading people to become hostile toward the species. Four seals were found deliberately killed by human hand in late 2011 and early last year, including two found bludgeoned to death on Molokai.
There are only about 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals left in the wild, including 150 to 200 in the main Hawaiian Islands. The overall population is declining 4 percent a year.