In Search of the Hawaiian Monk Seal

Having planned activities for a trip makes sense, but don’t neglect opportunities to get out and have a little unexpected adventure. It certainly paid off for me on a recent trip to Kauai, Hawaii.

Enjoying the beach with a good book and cold beverage is a perfectly satisfying way to pass the time on Kauai. But I also had the urge to experience something, well, uniquely Hawaiian.

“You should go see the Hawaiian monk seals,” said a woman who worked at the Outrigger Kiahuna Plantation, where I was staying.

The what? I thought, with an image in my head of a religious sea lion of Polynesian decent wearing a brown, wide-sleeved robe with a rope belt and chanting in Latin.

Turns out that Hawaiian monk seals are a primitive species of seal, having separated from more modern seals about 15 million years ago. Its name is said to derive from its round head covered with short hairs, giving it the appearance of a medieval friar. So I guess my mental image was a little off, but I had the general idea.

Predominantly residing on the Northwestern islands, the seals’ numbers are rapidly dwindling. As of 2008, an estimated 1,200 remained. Lack of food, marine debris, human disturbances, and habitat losses threaten them with extinction.

The woman at the Outrigger Kiahuna Plantation pointed on a map to the right of the town of Po’ipu, where the resort is located. The place by her finger looked blank. “Maha’ulepu Beach,” she said.


Feeling adventurous, I got into my rental car and drove, past the Grand Hyatt, past Shipwreck Beach, until I came to the end of the paved road. Sitting before me was an open gate with a sign that said “NO TRESPASSING.”

This must be it, I thought. Ignoring the sign, I continued on the dirt road, seemingly hitting every pothole along the way, dirtying up my rental car, wondering if Hawaii 5-0 was going to bust me for trespassing.

I drove for miles with no other cars in site. I was increasingly determined to find these monk seals. After making the right guess at a fork in the road, I was finally able to relax when I saw other cars parked along a wooded area.

But what I didn’t see were seals. I got out of my car, hiked through the woods, and found a beautiful white-sand beach. I looked to the right and saw rocks. I looked to the left and saw…more beach. I continued my hike. I was on a mission: I had to find the monk seals.

After 30 minutes of kicking around, finally, in the distance, I could see people standing around on the beach. I approached, cautiously optimistic.

“Hey, are the monk seals here?” I asked.

“Yup, the mother and pup are coming to shore now,” an older gentleman said. I noticed an orange temporary fence set up, a buffer zone for the seals.

And there they were, a mother and pup. They slowly inched their way along the sand, taking many breaks, until they finally found a comfortable place to rest before the mother turned over and nursed her pup. With a little good fortune, that pup could live for 30 years. Maybe I’ll see that seal again some day if I’m graced with a little good fortune, too.

*Note: Hawaiian monk seals are currently protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Hawaii state laws. Sightings on Kauai can be reported by calling 808-651-7668.