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How Two Monk Seals Are Trying to Save Their Species from Extinction

One aquarium has made celebrities of two monk seals to try to redress negative perceptions of the critically endangered mammal.
A Hawaiian monk seal. Image: Brian Russo/Flickr

Last year it was revealed that since 1970 half of all the world's vertebrate wildlife have disappeared. Animals we barely even knew about have retreated into dusty museum collections without even a basic awareness of their lives to help us fill out the tags. Fundamentally missing from their departures were identities—to give meaning and value to those creatures we shared the world with, and to allow us, with each new extinction, to properly lament our incrementally poorer planet.


At a small beachfront aquarium in Hawaii, staff and volunteers are trying to turn the tide. In an effort to stem the flow of our endangered wildlife toward obscurity, they're making celebrities of one particular species.

Maka Onaona and Hō'ailona are Waikiki Aquarium's most famous residents. They're also Hawaiian monk seals—a species that rests uneasily on the shifting sands between life and death. Despite being one of the oldest species of seal still existing today, and the world's only tropical seal, the monk seal drifts in and out of its homeland's culture like a ghost.

One of the Waikiki Aquarium seals. Image: Jack Marley

Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi) were officially recognised as endangered in the 1970s, when there were several thousand, but today that number hovers around triple figures.

They've been hunted to the brink by colonists, forced to subsist on distant atolls by the military, and are now the ongoing victims of sporadic violence in the main Hawaiian Islands. The roots of this animosity are deep and tangled, but most of it stems from a belief that the seals don't belong here, where most people live. As the seals slowly returned to these areas in the 70s, they were welcomed by a federal programme to manage their recovery and within a generation, the people of Hawaii have gone from no seals to sharing their shores with almost 200 of them.

Could engaging with Maka and Hoa make the killing stop?

For many, the unresolved antipathy that lingers from Washington's annexation of the islands has latched onto the species and the mainland government agencies tasked with its revival. Even those who accept that the seals are Hawaiian often have reservations about how much fish they're likely to eat.


It's hard to believe all that though, watching the crowds lining the palm-strewn viewing platforms to get a glimpse at Maka and Hoa.

Maka Onaona arrived at the aquarium in the summer of 1984, prematurely abandoned by his mother and too skinny to be entrusted with survival in the wild. Now 30 years old, he's ancient compared to his friends outside. Hō'ailona, meanwhile, is something of a local legend. Overcoming his mother's abandonment in 2008, he was released a fitter and more confident pup but soon found that he preferred the company of humans to seals. Tales of him hopping into inner tubes with kids for photo opportunities and even leading a stranded boat party back to shore make up the reputation that preceded his arrival here, which followed the development of cataracts that left him partially blinded.

Image: Fuzzy Gerdes/Flickr

I arrived in Oahu last summer to conduct research for my dissertation as a marine biology student at Newcastle University, occupied by the same question that the New York Times had demanded of readers the year before: "Who would kill a monk seal?" I was intrigued by the upbeat atmosphere at this little aquarium that seemed to defy the negative attitudes to monk seals elsewhere. I wanted to know if it could have an impact on the increasingly toxic debate about custodianship of Hawaii's state mammal. On a bench outside I scribbled down the outline of my thesis: Could engaging with Maka and Hoa make the killing stop?


I sat in the shade and watched other people meet Maka and Hoa for the first time. Seeing the scars on Maka from tangling with discarded fishing line made many vow to clean up beaches. Others realised the consequences for seals like Hoa when people get too close and resolved to use zoom when taking "sealfies" next time. No one left doubting that what they had seen was a native species.

But urging tourists to be more responsible is one thing; convincing islanders that coexistence is worthwhile is another.

National Geographic came up with the idea of strapping GoPros to wild animals to record what they get up to when humans aren't looking.

Their Crittercam project

has seen them expose the secret lives of everything from pet cats to kangaroos, but their decision to tag monk seals offered people an unbiased glimpse into the daily lives of this much-maligned species. I got my hands on some footage and decided to use the time I had left at the aquarium to present locals with the video, and see if it could challenge any negative perceptions they had.

For those engaged with the problem, the footage was revelatory. Most reasoned before watching it that the seals must have a pretty heavy impact on local fish stocks, but all conceded afterwards that they had misjudged them. Watching this one glide serenely through clouds of fish, passing up the juicy ulua that would make an impressive trophy for any angler, it isn't difficult to see why. Monk seals have a penchant for the hard-to-reach gross stuff that humans rarely eat.

Eventually I reviewed the conversations I'd had and found the sum total to be positive. Moving the story of this species away from the lecterns of government scientists and toward the enclosures of Waikiki Aquarium had allowed people to see the species for what it was, and not what it might represent.

But the aquarium was just an island in the sea of a wider problem. Whoever was killing monk seals was out there, not in here. It was only the success of the Crittercam project that hinted at the possibilities of reaching wider audiences. Without a word being spoken, the cameras had allowed the seals to give their side of the story. That might just be a valuable tool in conservation over the years to come. As we become more numerous, human-wildlife conflict is certain to increase, but in giving people the opportunity to see the world through another's eyes, there may yet be hope for us coexisting with nature.

"People are always trying to impose things on nature instead of just living with it," one man remarked without looking up from the footage. In the enclosure behind him Maka slid into the water to cool off. "In the end we're all just trying to get by."