The Story of Ui'Lani
One Community, One Seal: U’ilani the Hawaiian Monk Seal.
A baby monk seal was born on the reef runway beach at Honolulu International Airport on May 17th, 2013.
The Hawaiian monk seal is the most critically endangered marine mammal species within the United States. There are only about 1,100 of these animals in existence today. The population projections suggest that there should be a stable population at 2800, their numbers are less than half of what they should be and the population is declining at 4% per year. Without diligent conservation and recovery efforts the monk seals could go extinct in our children’s children’s life time.
Federal scientists refer to the seal as “RN36” and the local community who has taken ownership of her refers to her as “U’ilani” which in Hawaiian means “Heavenly Beauty.” She was born to a mother monk seal named “Ewa Girl” (RSOO) who has given life to 8 other monk seals.
U’ilani exemplifies the plight of her endangered population’s need, for not only coexistence with human’s but, a greater awareness of the impacts humans create in the marine habitat on a daily basis. Her species needs communities like those who have “hanai’d” (adopted) her who will take the extra effort in looking out for her well being, and thus, the need to recover and preserve her population.
In U’ilani’s short life she has touched many community members who enjoy seeing her grow and develop doing her “sealy” things: investigating, learning, rolling, splashing, playing, a new life in our familiar waters. The residents of Mokuea Island of Keehi Lagoon have special stories. They have observed her frolicking under their houses, watched her catch fish and bring them under a house on stilts or in front of their houses to eat in safe shallow waters. Sometimes the dog of one of those houses on stilts alerts the community to her arrival. She also naps in the shallows of these houses, sometimes resting her head where on a step where the steps descend into the water. Canoe paddlers vocalize in joy and laughter when they see her in passing when they are exiting Kalihi Channel for an open ocean practice run. U’ilani looks over and notices a crew, sometimes for a moment, but then she is off, she has more important things to do. Things only seals understand – you know “sealy” things.
Her species has evolved to adapt to nature but her species’ adaptations can not keep up with the changes that man makes to the environment. As much joy as she has brought to the lucky people who have gotten to view her doing her “sealy” things around Keehi Lagoon, she has already gotten into situations that could prove harmful to her and speaks to the threats these animals face in the environment, but the good people who watch over her are keeping tabs on her and report concerns to Oahu’s marine mammal responders who monitor her for her own safety.
Conditioning to people:
Young seals in the human populated main Hawaiian Islands are particularly sensitive to human contact when they are young. After the mother weans them (leaves them forever to fend for themselves) after only rearing them for 5 to 7 weeks they are left to “figure it out. While they have hard wired instincts, they have been nursing for all that time sometimes gaining as much as 5 pounds per day and for the first 1 to 3 months post weaning, the pups are exploring the new universe and if they come upon a well meaning human that feeds them or interacts with them the seal can become habituated and then conditioned to seeking out human attention. Not the seal’s fault but it leads to seals growing up to eventually demand human attention which is cute when they are 80 pounds, but when they are 300 to 400 pounds the seals can become demanding hand outs and human attention and then they are labeled a human safety concern. The temptation to interact with young seals is almost irresistible, but for their own good we need to coexist with them from a respectful distance, we need to keep them wild. There have been times when U’ilani has focused her attention on various beach goers and canoe paddlers but for now she seems to be staying wild but only time will tell. Will you make sure she gets her space so she can live a long healthy life and give birth to many pups so the population will recover?
Conditioning to humans is not the only concern we have for our U’ilani…
Oahu’s molasses spill killed over a thousand coral colonies along with a massive fish die-off. The September, 2013 dumped more than 233,000 gallons of molasses in Honolulu Harbor. From our friends at Mokauea Island and various canoe paddlers who would catch glimpses of her and Monk Seal Foundation volunteers who patrolled looking for her, we know the she was in the area during at least parts of the time during the course of the aftermath of the spill Wildlife Agency’s responsible for the protection and recovery of the monk seal species were not sure how much they should be concerned with her health. Usually when the state and federal agencies are dealing with a spill of this magnitude in or near a harbor area they are working within a pre-designated disaster response command structure where they are confronted with petroleum product which can be toxic to all marine life. The molasses spill was not considered toxic but caused a disruption in the oxygen content of the water which caused the corals and fish to die but there was no real direct concern for U’ilani. But, she was reportedly eating the dead fish though which can harbor large amounts of bacteria over the course of the decomposition of the fish. We figured she was smart enough to not eat the really rotten fish (and we wondered if she we would develop a sweet tooth!!) and she is still swimming today around healthy. It looks like she probably just benefited from a few free, easy to catch meals.
Entanglement risks and humans feeding seals:
In December 2013 she was hanging around the Alawai Boat Harbor and one night she appeared entangled in some debris in the harbor but it ended up she was just resting on top of some cables draped beneath the piers, using them as a hammock. There were reports of her being fed by people which may have attracted her to the harbor and this dangerous resting site. Federal and State Agencies put out a press release and the Harbor Masters posted signs reminding people that feeding seals or trying to interact with seals can be bad for their health. Feeding seals can get them used to unnatural food sources and condition them to being too dependent on people for food.
U’ilani’s special appearance:
Marking the entrance of two new donated canoes at the end of 2013 and looking toward the beginning of the 2014 Hawaii State Canoe Club Season, The New Hope Canoe Club Ministry held a Canoe Blessing on the 5th of October, 2013. Pastor Wayne Cordiero - New Hope Founder, Cy Kalama - Head Coach and his Hookele (Board of Directors of the Canoe Ministry), all the paddlers from Pure Light adaptive paddlers, to seasoned paddlers, to new paddlers and family members were in attendance and as the blessing began a double rainbow appeared, and you guessed it, U’ilani swam into the area. She swam back and forth parallel to the beach and then she slipped beneath the water and swam off to whatever her daily routine must be. She is loved by many, and many of us in the canoe club look at her as our unofficial mascot. Aumakua are often thought of deified ancestors either bringing sign of good or ill. There are also stories of Aumakua intervening to save a living member of the family from tragedy. Some may even consider her Aumakua of the Keehi lagoon and Kalihi Channel area, or who knows, even to certain individuals who have repeatedly encountered her. On the day of the blessing, in the very least, her presence, was seen as a Ho’ailona, or sign from nature, in this case a sign of a safe and successful season ahead!
E kaupe, U’ilani!