KAPA‘A — A possibly pregnant monk seal that looked like it had been bitten by a shark and had been seeking refuge in Mo‘ikeha Canal in Kapa‘a has apparently healed and is already hauling off on Eastside beaches.
“In early December 2011, we observed injuries consistent with shark bites on her left side near her front flipper and on her underside,” said Michele Bane, Kaua‘i Marine Mammal Response program coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.
Program volunteers also noticed RK13 wasn’t using her left front flipper very much. For almost a month she came daily to the canal to rest, avoiding the beaches, where monk seals usually rest.
“We believe that her behavior has been a way for her to rest comfortably while her injuries heal,” Bane said. “Her injuries have progressed favorably, seem to be healing very well, and we have observed full use of all of her flippers for the past week.”
Volunteers monitoring RK13 also suspected the seal is pregnant.
“Aside from the fact that RK13 was already compromised by her injuries, there is the possibility that she is currently pregnant,” said Bane, adding that the seal was not handled at all throughout the ordeal. “We must always weigh the risks and benefits of handling an animal.”
NOAA’s research and monitoring program has observed monk seals fully recover from much more severe shark bites than RK13’s latest wounds, and without veterinarian intervention, Bane said.
Tim Robinson, project coordinator of the Kaua‘i Monk Seal Watch Program, speaking as an individual, said the first time he came across RK13 was when he started volunteering with monk seals about 13 years ago. The seal was already sexually mature, so it had to be at least 5 years old, he said. Robinson said he assumes RK13 now is at least 18 years old.
When Robinson first saw RK13, she had a “vicious shark bite” on its side, where the imprints from a tiger shark’s teeth could still be seen.
Robinson said RK13 is known to be pregnant pretty regularly.
“She’s kind of a strange one,” Robinson said. “She’s a prolific breeder. She’s pregnant every year, but it’s my knowledge that she has never dropped a pup on Kaua‘i. She always disappears when it looks like she’s about to deliver. We think she goes to Ni‘ihau.”
Bane said she first came across RK13 in 2005, when NOAA’s current monitoring program began. At that time her left eye was opaque white and presumed blind. Since 2008, RK13 has had a chronic skin condition resulting in occasional lesions on her back.
Tiger sharks and monk seals are “pretty much at the top of the food chain” in Hawaiian waters, according to Robinson. The seals’ main predators are sharks, but the majority of shark attacks on seals happen near the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where seals are abundant and have to compete for food. There are around 1,000 seals there.
On Kaua‘i, there are about 40 to 45 seals, Robinson said. The seals here are well fed and healthy. Sharks, slower and less agile than the seals, usually would rather make a meal out of turtles than seals. But some of the seals have shark-bite scars, which Robinson said shows that a shark nipped a seal before it got away.
Cookie cutter bites, usually from moray eels, are more common on seals, and helps to identify them, Robinson said. Seals are bottom dwellers, she said, and sometimes smaller predators hiding on caves go after the seals.
Local or introduced?
Robinson said there has been a lot of misconception in the Hawaiian community about the history of monk seals in the islands. A “vocal minority” has been saying that seals are not native to Hawai‘i, and this belief is starting to spread, despite not being true, he said.
Native Hawaiian and Hawaiian rights activist Walter Ritte, a Molokai native who helped stop the bombing of Kaho‘olawe by the Navy in the 1990s, released a public statement on Dec. 23 following the suspicious death of two monk seals on Molokai. Since then, another seal was found dead in similar circumstances there. Government officials have not ruled on the cause of death yet.
In the statement, Ritte said the death of the seals is a dangerous trend.
“Our elders are saying that these seals are not Hawaiian,” he said. “Our young people are calling these seals an invasive species brought in by the government.”
The seals, Ritte said, have become an easy target of blame for the depletion of Hawaiian fisheries.
“We need to stand up for the truth: These seals are not only Hawaiian, but have been here longer than the Hawaiians,” Ritte said.
Hawaiians, he said, need to see themselves when they see a Hawaiian monk seal.
“How we treat the seals is how we can expect to be treated as Hawaiians,” Ritte said.
• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or lazambuja@ thegardenisland.com.