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.