Photo: Hawaiian monk seal rests on the sand

While most seals make their homes in colder climates, Hawaiian monk seals prefer the warm, sandy beaches of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Photograph by Bill Curtsinger

Map

Map: Hawaiian monk seal range

Hawaiian Monk Seal Range

Audio

Fast Facts

Type:
Mammal
Diet:
Carnivore
Average life span in the wild:
25 to 30 years
Size:
Length, 7.5 ft (2.3 m)
Weight:
500 to 610 lbs (225 to 275 kg)
Group name:
Colony or rookery
Protection status:
Endangered
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Hawaiian monk seal compared with adult man

Most seals are at home in frigid waters, but the Hawaiian monk seal is a rare tropical exception.

Hawaiian monk seals live in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. These small islands and atolls are either uninhabited or little-used by humans. They are also surrounded with teeming coral reefs, which serve as great foraging grounds for skilled seals to swim and dive for fish, spiny lobsters, octopuses, and eels. Monk seals spend most of their time at sea, but come ashore to rest on beaches and even utilize fringe vegetation as shelter from storms.

The monk seal is named for its folds of skin that somewhat resemble a monk's cowl, and because it is usually seen alone or in small groups. Hawaiians call the seal `Ilio holo I ka uaua, which means, "dog that runs in rough water."

Mother monk seals are dedicated and remain with their pups constantly for the first five or six weeks of their lives. They don't eat during this challenging time and may lose hundreds of pounds.

Like the other species of warm-water monk seals, the Mediterranean and Caribbean monk seals, the Hawaiian monk seal has a tenuous grasp on survival. The Caribbean monk seal, in fact, is believed to have been extinct since the 1970s. Perhaps 300 to 600 Mediterranean monk seals and about 1,300 to 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals survive.

Humans have moved into many of the desirable coastal habitats that these animals once frequented, so open coastline is at a premium. Monk seals have also been victims of fisheries, though they are usually accidental bycatch and not a targeted species. Sharks also prey on these seals, and males sometimes kill females of their own species in group attacks called "mobbing."

Today, Hawaiian monk seals are endangered and, although many protection efforts are in place, their numbers are believed to have fallen more than ten percent per year since 1989.

Mammal Features

  • Photo: Close-up of an African lion

    Animal Conservation

    Find out what National Geographic Society is doing to save animals all over the world, and learn what you can do to help.

  • hawaiian-monk-critter-cam.jpg

    Crittercam Helps Study Rare Species

    The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the oldest species of seal on the planet. But their tenure in paradise is perilously close to its end; only about 1,100 seals remain in the wild.

  • Masai Mara Lion

    Lions Quiz

    The king of cats rules with a roar and a fierce bite. What else do you know about this top predator?

  • Photo: Lion bares his teeth

    Cause an Uproar

    Big cats are quickly disappearing. Now is the time to act. Cause an uproar to save big cats today.

Photos

  •  Picture of a Malayan tiger

    Pictures: Tiger Subspecies

    Scientists estimate only about 3,000 wild tigers are left in the entire world. Meet the subspecies and see what threats each is facing.

See more animal photos »

From the Magazine

  • Photo of the lions of the Vumbi pride.

    The Surprising Lives of Lions

    In case you missed it: See these breathtaking videos and photos from inside a wild Serengeti pride.

  • Photo: Two adult preen, Ireland

    Gannets Pictures

    Champion divers but clumsy landers, doting parents but hostile neighbors—northern gannets abound in contradictions.