The Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) is an endangered species found only in the Hawaiian Islands with less than 1200 remaining in the wild. Hawaiian monk seals are protected by state and federal laws and can live up to 30 years in the wild. They are preyed on by Tiger and Galapagos sharks and are at risk from marine debris which they may accidentally swallow or become entangled in, human interactions such as bycatch in fishing gear and loss of haul-out space due to beach erosion in the North Western Hawaiian Islands.
There are currently two resident Hawaiian Monk Seals at the Waikiki Aquarium, Maka Onaona and Ho’ailona. Maka, the older of the two arrived in 1984 at 3 weeks old from French Frigate Shoals after being abandoned by his mother and is 7.5 feet long and weighs between 350-390 pounds. The newest addition, Ho’a, born in 2008 on Kaua’i arrived at the aquarium in Fall 2011 also after being abandoned by his mother. Ho’a was raised by NOAA staff and released on Moloka’i at 8 months old but became a concern when he began interacting with humans. He was brought back to the aquarium where he was discovered to have poor vision and it was determined he was an unreleasable seal. He is 6 feet long and weighs about 230 pounds.
Hawaiian monk seals can dive deeper than 1000 feet and can hold their breath up to 20 minutes. This allows them to feed on a variety of reef fish, octopus, lobster and eels. Monk seals swallow their food whole and have strong jaws for crushing prey. At the aquarium, Maka and Ho’a are fed 10 pounds of frozen squid, herring and smelt daily that is inspected one-by-one to ensure high quality items. They receive a total of 6,000 calories distributed through 3-4 feeds per day as well as marine mammal vitamins. Special care must be taken when preparing their food to prevent contamination. Everything is thoroughly washed with bleach and kept separate from everything else in the aquarium. Each seal gets their own color coded bucket of food and each feed is carefully weighed and measured.
Feeding sessions are also used as a time to train the seals on new behaviors. Positive reinforcement is used to teach new behaviors and to reward good behavior. This enables trainers to conduct daily body exams on each seal to check for any cuts or scrapes and this also allows the seals to get used to being handled by the trainers. A “target” is used to maneuver the seals throughout the habitat and to teach new behaviors. Ho’a is still learning basic behaviors but Maka knows about 20 different behaviors.
The monk seals also undergo several enrichment sessions a day that last 20-30 minutes for physical and mental stimulation. Various objects are used to stimulate their senses but much consideration is taken into account when selecting enrichment items. Items must be indestructible since the seals have strong jaws that may break the items into small, sharp pieces. Enrichment sessions are voluntary and it is up to the seals whether they want to interact with the objects and trainers during that time.
Hawaiian monk seal populations are continuing to decrease up to 5% per year and there are no captive breeding programs so males may not be kept with females in captivity. There are no captive breeding programs because since there are more males than females, it is important to keep all the females in the wild, captive pups would be at risk for disease if introduced to the wild, and studies have shown that a good number of pups are being born but the problem is that they are not surviving to adulthood due to possible competition for beach space, predation by sharks, and lack of food.
- Chelsea Wolke
Waikiki Aquarium Hawaiian Monk Seal Presentation
Amber Cushman, Waikiki Aquarium Monk Seal Student