Protected Resources Division

twin seals

Learn About Monk Seals

Things you should know about the Hawaiian monk seal

  • 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." *click here to learn about monk seals in Hawaiian culture
  • Hawaiian monk seals are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, this means that they are native and are found nowhere else on earth.
  • The Hawaiian monk seal is one of only two mammals indigenous to Hawaii's terrestrial environment (the other is the hoary bat).
  • Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most endangered animal species in the world. Only about 1,100 seals are left and their overall population is in decline.
  • The Hawaiian monk seal is Hawaii's official state mammal.

Natural History

  • The youngest females to give birth are 4-5 years old, though many begin pupping when older.
  • Life expectancy is 25-30 years, but few seals live this long.
  • 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 can dive as deep as 1500 ft! But they usually make dives less than 200 ft to forage on the sea floor.
  • Monk seals usually sleep on the beaches of the Hawaiian Islands, sometimes for days at a time. They can also sometimes be seen by SCUBA divers sleeping underwater in small caves.
  • Monk seals do not migrate seasonally, but some seals have been tracked traveling hundreds of miles in the open ocean. 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 - usually not touching.

Diet

different things that monk seals eat swimming monk seal

Hawaiian monk seals are "generalist" feeders, which means they eat a variety of foods depending on what's available. They eat many types of common fishes, squid, octopus, eels and crustaceans (crabs, shrimp and lobster). Diet studies indicate that they prefer prey that is easier to catch than most of the locally popular gamefish, e.g. ulua, papio and oio.


Taxonomy

Hawaiian monk seals are one of three species of seals in the genus Monachus, the oldest of all existing seal genera. Monk seals are the oldest species of seals on the planet. All evidence indicates that monk seals have been in the Hawaiian Islands for several million years. Click here to see a historical timeline of Hawaiian monk seals.

There are three species of monk seals in the genus Monachus. In addition to the Hawaiian monk seal...

  • The Caribbean monk seal is extinct, with the last wild animal seen in 1952.
  • The Mediterranean monk seal is also critically endangered, with less than 500 individuals remaining.

Hawaiian monk seal

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Phocidae
  • Genus: Monachus
  • Species: schauinslandi

Physical Description

  • Adult monk seals are about 6-7 feet in length and weigh about 400-600 pounds (~180-270 kilograms).
  • Both male and female monk seals are similar in body length.
  • Monk seal pups are black, while adults are dark gray to brown on their back and light gray to yellow-ish brown on their belly.
  • Monk seals have a "catastrophic molt," where they shed the top layer of their skin and fur about once a year.
  • When seals spend a long time at sea foraging, they can grow algae on their fur. Seals that look green usually haven't molted recently and may be getting ready to shed into a silvery, new coat.
seal anatomy

How to tell seals apart

Most Hawaiian monk seals have unique natural markings, such as scars or natural bleach marks, that help identify individual seals. Some seals have identifiers that are applied by authorized NOAA Fisheries Service personnel that help to keep track of individual animals, such as bleach markings or flipper tags.

monk seal identifiers

The only way to confirm whether a seal is female or male is by looking at its belly.

For more information about the natural history of the Hawaiian monk seal:

Download our NEW natural history brochure

Visit the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP)
Or the NOAA Fisheries Headquarters Office of Protected Resources Hawaiian monk seal page