ʻILIO HOLO I KA UAUA – “Dog That Runs in Rough Waters”

Surviving for 15 million years, Hawaiian monk seals are the most endangered mammal in Hawai’i, and one of the most endangered of all seal species in the world. In 2010, it was estimated that only 1,100 individuals remain in the wild.

Pinnipeds, or fin-footed mammals, are a widely distributed and diverse group of semi-aquatic marine mammals.  Successfully adapted to life in the sea, pinnipeds are thought to have evolved from terrestrial mammals about 20 million years ago and continue to retain strong ties to land. Their closest modern day ancestors are the bear and the dog. Hawaiian monk seals are the most primitive living members of the pinniped family Phocidae (earless seals) having separated from other true seals perhaps 15 million years ago.

The Hawaiian monk seal, Monachus schauinslandi,  is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. Known to the native Hawaiians as ʻIlio holo i ka uaua, or “dog that runs in rough water,” the monk seal’s common name derives from its round head covered with short hairs resembling a medieval friar, its folds of skin that somewhat resemble a monk’s cowl, and its solitary existence.  Relative to other species that collect in large colonies the monk seal is usually seen alone or in small groups.

While most seals make their homes in colder climates, Hawaiian monk seals prefer  warm, sandy beaches. They are the only tropical seal in the world, found only in the Hawaiian Archipelago, and the only marine mammal found entirely within U.S. waters. Monk seals are a unique part of Hawai’i’s natural and cultural history. Most  are found around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands where their number is rapidly falling due to decades of over-fishing, habitat loss, predation, and entanglement in marine debris.

Slowly however, the monk seals are returning to the main Hawaiian Islands. They have been sighted in surf breaks and on beaches at Maui, Molokai, and Lanai, as well as Niihau, Kauai, and Oahu.  In 2006, twelve pups were born in the main Hawaiian Islands, rising to thirteen in 2007, and eighteen in 2008. As of 2008, 43 total pups have been counted in the main Hawaiian Islands.

The Hawaiian monk seal was officially designated as an endangered species on November 23, 1976, and is on the critical list.  Hawaiian monk seals are protected under the federal  Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as well as state laws. It is illegal to kill, capture, or harass a Hawaiian monk seal.

The Hawaiian monk seal was declared Hawaii’s official state mammal on June 11, 2008.


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