An Afternoon of Monk Seal—and People—Watching

ocean, blur, panning effect
A slow pan of the ocean.

By the time I get to the remote end of a North Shore beach where two Hawaiian monk seals are hauled out, there are already three naked people under the heliotrope tree where I usually sit. But they’re nice, offer me a piece of their Peruvian fruit, yacón, and report the seals galumphed onto the sand a couple hours before.

One is female weaner and the other a sub-adult male, I say about the seals. “How can you tell?” the woman asks me, and I pause, very much aware that I am talking about genitalia with naked people.

I sit in the shade of another heliotrope tree and enjoy my yacón, noting its apple-like texture and sugar cane-like sweetness.

Later, a man approaches from down the beach. He’s walking wonky, drinking out of a can. I am a little concerned. Is he drunk? Insane? He’s got a backpack and is wearing fishing tabis. I wave. He waves. At least, I think it’s a wave. He starts to cut across the peninsula, away from the seals. But after he passes me, he steers right for seals. I still think all will be fine. Except he gets closer and closer. With every step he takes with his left foot, I think he’s veering left, away from the seals. But, then, with every right step, he gets closer. Until he’s a foot away, and both seals wake, raise their heads and rear flippers, and bark. For his part, the man jumps, too. “Oh god. Oh god. Sorry,” he calls to me. And the seals head for the water, where they play in the shallows for 20 minutes before heading out to sea.

hawaiian monk seal, weaner, f30
Sleeping Hawaiian monk seal weaner.

Watching all this it suddenly becomes quite clear to me how much the monk seal is like the giant land birds—all flightless—that went extinct when the first humans arrived in Hawaii. Four-foot tall, thirty-pound birds now gone. Monk seals were all but flightless, so, of course, they were extirpated from the Main Hawaiian Islands. But because they could swim, they survived in the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. And like the turtle, they are now recovering in the Main Hawaiian Islands, thanks to the Endangered Species Act.

A few minutes go by in which I chastise myself for not doing more to have prevented the seals’ disturbance, and a pole fisherman approaches. Mark the Shark, he tells me is his name. “That guy,” he says, “Is on Mars. He was speaking gibberish to me. Don’t try to engage him.”

Mark has just caught six papio—bluefin trevally—and thrown all but one back. “I don’t need more,” he says.

I point out the seals. “Yeah, I already saw them he says.”

Now that’s a true fisherman for you. Aware.

A seabird flies overhead, catching my eye. “Juvenile red-footed booby,” I say.

“We call them stupid birds,” he says.

Mark has nicknames for all the seabirds. The boobies, he says, are stupid, because they dive for his lures when he’s fishing offshore in his boat. Tropicbirds are lying birds, because they hover over nothing. But the `iwa, the frigatebirds, they usually mean big ahi, tuna. Mark lights up when I mention albatross. “Oh, yes, big fish,” he says. “We couldn’t fish without the birds. The birds show us where the fish are.”

Eventually, the nude sunbathers leave, the man from Mars stumbles down the beach, and Mark the Shark departs. I wait a little while longer, scanning the water for monk seal heads that might pop out of the water, and when they don’t, I leave, too.

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