Monk Seal Encounter

by Nancy Harris

I've been diving with Ed Robinson for what seems like forever, over 20 years in fact. We've had some fantastic diving through the years and a lot of ordinary dives too but if you love diving, like I do, even the ordinary days underwater here on Maui always seem to provide something special.

Monk Seal image

Our dive today (February 20, l997) was not planned as anything special, just another trip to Molokini crater. We were seeking clear water and we can always find it there, even when the Maui shores are all stirred up with winter storm waves. It was a special day, in a sense, since I talked Sue and Ed into getting out of the office for a change and joining me on their 6 pack boat, Mana Kai. I had a new camera and housing with which to get acquainted and was planning to sit on the bottom and practice with it. As we made ready to depart the Kihei launch ramp, another diving guide told us they had just been diving with a rare Monk seal at Molokini and that we should look out for it. (Apparently it had nipped a couple of divers during that encounter) So when we arrived at the crater, we cruised along the inside looking for seal signs.

We spotted him up on the rim, taking a snooze, so we anchored nearby and back rolled into the water. Monk seals are an endangered species and there are only an estimated 1,200 in existence. They normally inhabit the N.W. Hawaiian Islands, concentrating in an area called French Frigate Shoals which is about 250 miles N.W. of Kauai. Being on the endangered list, one is not supposed to approach, much less touch a monk seal, but then nobody told that to the seal.

Monk SealHe joined us, shortly after we entered the water and so as not to alarm him, we settled down on the sandy bottom and lay quietly on our bellies in about 25 feet of water while he zoomed around and through our bubbles. Little by little, he became more curious and explored our gear, our hair, our faces with his whiskers. It was impossible to resist reaching out and stroking him (especially when he had stroked us first). The caressing had a magical effect as he rolled over on his back, lay in the sand and shut his eyes while we scratched his tummy. This was unbelievable behavior for a wild seal. We had to keep reminding ourselves that this was a wild animal with teeth, BIG TEETH! For the next three hours, he stayed with us, played with us and joined and rejoined other divers and snorkelers as they came and went.

When he seemed to be tiring, Sue escorted him back to the ledge until he found a haul out spot and climbed out to rest up from his big adventure. The next day he was gone.

Monk Seal

I shared this information with Mark and Debbie Ferrari of the Center for Whale Studies who informed National Marine Fisheries of the incident. They knew of this particular seal as he had been around west Maui for two weeks. He was a young, immature male, which explained somewhat his puppy-dog like behavior. However, fully adult males are known to be very aggressive and can be dangerous to divers. We glory in our memories of that day, however.

-- Nancy Harris