Restricted to the Hawaiian Islands
Nest on beaches; feed on coral reefs and associated sand flats
Endangered (Highly Vulnerable To Extinction)
Order Pinnipedia (seals, sea lions, and relatives), Family Phocidae (true seals)
The Hawaiian monk seal is a true seal that is generally restricted to the uninhabited northwest Hawaiian Islands, with small numbers of individuals living in the main Hawaiian chain. Like all seals, the Hawaiian monk seal feeds in the ocean but mates, gives birth to its pups, and rests on land. Unlike most seals, however, monk seals prefer to live a somewhat solitary lifestyle rather than forming large breeding/pupping rookeries. The Hawaiian monk seal’s preferred pupping areas include beaches and rocky shores.
Hawaiian monk seals are generalist predators known to eat fishes, squids/octopuses, and crustaceans, like crabs and lobsters. They are also one of the few species known to successfully hunt and eat garden eels – elongate, shy eels that live in deep burrows in sand flats near coral reefs – and they have been documented diving to depths of more than 1000 feet (300 m) while foraging. Though adult Hawaiian monk seals are quite large (over 7 feet long [over 2 meters] and over 400 pounds [200 kilos]), they are still taken as prey by some large coastal sharks, especially tiger sharks, and scientists who study Hawaiian monk seals witness tiger sharks taking small to medium individuals, near their preferred beaches, almost daily.
Historically, there were three species of monk seals (Hawaiian, Mediterranean, and Caribbean), but all have been significantly affected by human activity, including direct hunting, accidental capture in fishing gear, and habitat destruction. Unfortunately, the Caribbean monk seal could not endure several centuries of hunting and accidental capture and has gone extinct. Both the Mediterranean monk seal and the Hawaiian monk seal are critically endangered and are very highly vulnerable to extinction. Conservation measures for these species by several non-government and government agencies are underway, and most countries that overlap with their geographic ranges (only the U.S. in the case of the Hawaiian monk seal) have offered them some or extensive legal protection.