A Glimmer of Hope in The Sunset

Wayne Sentman on the extremely endangered Hawaiian monk seal

Hawaiian monk seal
Hawaiian monk seal Wayne Sentman

Brilliant white sand crunches between my toes. The air is thick with the smell of salt. I am the only human on this beach on SandIsland in the Midway Atoll. This is the third time today that I've visited this stretch of secluded beach with notebook and binoculars in hand. I lift the binoculars to my eyes and spot a tiny monk seal pup and its mother. As I take notes, I can't help smiling. Each new birth for this extremely rare creature means another small step away from extinction.

For the past 100 years, the Hawaiian monk seal has been on a downward spiral toward extinction. Only 1,400 individuals remain. Researchers such as myself have been scrambling to learn the basics of their biology and behavior. With this knowledge we hope to save them.

The mother, K143, was born 19 years ago on Kure Atoll, roughly 60 miles west of this protected beach. She had chosen this quiet stretch, where human activity is strictly managed, to have her young. Over the next five weeks, she'll feed her young pup, nurturing and preparing it against tiger sharks, strong currents, aggressive male seals and other threats. Its odds are not good. As many as seven in ten won't live to see their fourth birthday.

As a youngster, K143 was one of the first monk seals tagged and "enrolled" in the National Marine Fisheries Service Headstart program (Smithsonian, December 1991). From 1981 through 1994, the program took in newly weaned pups, providing them with a natural diet and housing them safely behind a barrier to protect them from outside dangers. Thus protected, fat seal pups chased and played with their food. They learned how to capture and eat the eels and reef fish that are part of a monk seal's diet. By summer's end, when many of the tiger sharks had moved to deeper waters and male seals had lost their interest in breeding and became more docile, K143 and her playmates were released. Researchers began to record their life stories, keeping track of what they ate and where they went, trying to figure out what kinds of behaviors made some individuals more successful than others. With this information, they can then adopt sound management practices to better ensure the pups' success.

Overhead, a crimson sunset colors the sky. Suddenly, the elusive green flash pulses as the sun dips below the horizon. I permit myself a small feeling of pride in the perfect scene before me and in the fact that I am doing a small part to help these magnificent animals. There is hope for the future of these ancient creatures, and in that, hope for us all.

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