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Hawaiian Monk Seals

By Ellen Holtzen

There's a tiny dot of land far, far out among the western Hawaiian Islands. It may be small, but, like many islands, it's very important. For on the edge of the island, where water meets sand, lies a treasure - a newborn monk seal.

The little pup snuggles close to his mother and drinks her milk whenever he's hungry. Little fish swim near the mother and pup as they lie in the shallow water. Then the ocean waves lap gently at the pup and lull him to sleep.

As the tide begins to rise, the mother monk seal nudges her pup farther up onto the island beach. Mwaa-mwaa-mwaa he bleats as he struggles across the sand.

Monk Seal painting

The pup's mother knows just how to care for him, but she doesn't know how rare a treasure he is. She doesn't realize how few Hawaiian monk seals are left in the world. She'll never understand that they're an endangered species. And she'll never know that their close cousins, the Caribbean monk seals, have died out completely.

Right now, taking care of her pup is the mother seal's only job. She doesn't even leave him to hunt for food for herself. She can live on the energy stored in her blubber, or fat, until her pup is old enough to be on his own.

When evening comes, the mother seal will move even farther inland. She'll go from the water to the shelter of the shrubs that line the beach. Her pup will follow clumsily, dragging his chubby body across the sand. He'll pull himself along with his little front flippers - guhlump, guhlump, guhlump - until he reaches the protection of the shrubs.

In a day or two the young pup will be ready to go for his first swim. His mother will keep him in the shallow water, so he isn't swept away by a strong current. He will stay close to her and she'll watch his every move. But it will be back to the island for both of them when he needs a rest.

Monk seal mom and pup

Until the pup is five weeks old, his only food will be his mother's milk. He'll grow enormously fat on her milk until he weighs more than 150 pounds (68 kg) - four times his birth weight. While the pup grows to look like an overstuffed sausage, his mother will become sleek and thin. Then one day she will slip away to the deep water and leave her pup behind. By then he'll have to be able to care for himself. But for now, the newborn pup is content to be his mother's full-time job.

The pup's island is important to other monk seals too. On this sunny afternoon several have hauled themselves up onto the beach. The little pup watches as one by one the other seals go to sleep. For them, snoozing on the white coral sand is safer than staying in the deep water where they have to watch for sharks. Now the young pup squirms comfortably in the warm sand. Soon he and his mother are napping too.

Monk seals have been coming to this and other small Hawaiian islands for millions of years. They have had no natural enemies on the islands - nothing to be afraid of. But for a while in the 1800s, the islands became a dangerous place for them. People discovered that monk seals were tame and not at all afraid of them. The people killed thousands of seals. Then they sold the oil that they got from the seals' blubber.

Almost too late, people who cared about wildlife found that there were very few monk seals left. In 1909, seven of these tiny western islands were set aside for wildlife. Together the islands are called the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. And people need special permits to come to the refuge islands.

Scientists have been studying monk seals for almost 30 years. In the past they had put metal tags on some of the seals. That way they could keep track of how long they had lived and how far they had swum. Then the scientists discovered that monk seals don't do well when they're disturbed by people. They don't have as many babies when people are around the beaches. And the pups that are born are often weak and small.

These days the scientists never touch the seal pups. And they are careful not to disturb any of the seals when they study them.

Now that the seals have a safe place on land, one other thing has to be done to help them. People must decide which parts of the ocean will be set aside for the seals and which parts can be used by fishing boats and divers. Although the fishers and divers mean no harm, the seals get caught in their nets and broken lines. That's why a place in the ocean away from people is just as necessary for the monk seals as a safe island to rest on.

And that's just what the five-week-old seal pup on this island will discover when his mother leaves him. For several months the pup will swim in the water near the island. He'll learn to catch the fish, lobsters, octopuses, and other creatures that live near shore.

Monk seal pup

But then one day he'll venture into deep water. He may spend several days at a time eating big meals and outswimming big sharks. But now and then he will return to stretch out and sleep on the little island - that important speck of land where he was born.

All alone now, this young Hawaiian monk seal will go deep-sea fishing when he's old enough, and he'll come back to the island now and then for a good long rest.

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