About Hawaiian Monk Seals

  • The Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi) is one of the most endangered animal species in the world. Only about 1,400 seals are left. About 1,100 of these animals live in the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and only about 250 to 300 live in the main islands of Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Maui, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Hawaii Island.
  • The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most rare marine mammals. Part of the “true seal” family (Phocidae), they are one of only two remaining monk seal species left on earth. The other is the Mediterranean monk seal. A third monk seal species – the Caribbean monk seal – is extinct.
  • Isolated from their closest relative up to 15 million years ago, Hawaiian monk seals are considered a “living fossil” because of their distinct evolutionary lineage.
  • The Hawaiian monk seal is one of only two mammals indigenous to Hawaii’s environment (the other is the hoary bat).
  • Hawaiian monk seals are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands which means that they are native to Hawaii and are found nowhere else on earth. Hawaiian monk seals have evolved for millions of years in the waters and on the coastlines of Hawaii.
  • The gestation period is about 11 months. Birthing rates vary with a range of 30-70% of adult females birthing in a given year. While most births occur in late March and early April, birthing has been recorded year round. Newborns are black, and then molt near the end of their nursing period.
  • Nursing occurs for about 5 weeks, during which time the mother fasts and remains on land. After this period, the mother abandons her pup and returns to sea. Although they are generally solitary animals, females have been observed fostering others’ offspring.
  • Monk seals are primarily “benthic” foragers (bottom feeders), and eat a variety of prey including fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans. Monk seals generally hunt for food outside of the immediate shoreline areas in waters 60-300 feet (18-90 m) deep but they have been observed swimming at depths of nearly 1,800 feet, where they prey on eels and other benthic organisms.
  • Monk seals living in the main Hawaiian Islands are threatened by several natural and human-related activities including diseases, human interaction, fishery interactions and entanglement. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, there are additional and different threats to their population recovery.
  • Monk seals are named for the folds of skin on their head that look like a monk’s hood and because they spend most of their time alone.
  • The Hawaiian monk seal is Hawaii’s official state mammal.
  • Females generally mature around age 5; it is unknown when males mature. Monk seals are promiscuous and mate underwater. They give birth on land.
  • The youngest females to give birth are 4-5 years old, though many begin pupping when older.
  • These animals can live up to 30-35 years, but few seals live this long in the wild.
  • Hawaiian monk seals usually dive for an average of 6 minutes when feeding; but they can hold their breath as long as 20 minutes.
  • Monk seals usually rest and sleep on the beaches of the Hawaiian Islands, sometimes for days at a time. Divers can occasionally see these seals sleeping in underwater caves as well.
  • Individual seals often frequent the same beaches over and over, but do not defend regular territories.
  • Hawaiian monk seals do not live in colonies like sea lions or elephant seals. They are mostly solitary but sometimes may be seen lying near each other in small groups but usually not touching.

The monk seal is known in Hawaiian as Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua, which means “dog running in the rough seas,” or na mea hulu, which means “the furry one.”

Find out more about the Hawaiian monk seal in the Native Hawaiian cultural context.

Monk seals do not migrate seasonally, but some seals have been tracked traveling hundreds of miles in the open ocean.

Click here to see the satellite tracking of a Hawaiian monk seal.