The Return of the Sea Dog

Seals are slowly coming back to the major Hawaiian Islands, and volunteers are working tirelessly to assure they are here to stay.

A female monk seal basks along the shoreline at White Plains Beach in Kalaeloa, opening an eye once in awhile as surfers and beachgoers play around her.

MONK SEAL FOUNDATION volunteers BARBARA and ROBERT BILLAND keep a watchful eye, making sure people do not disturb the monk seal, nicknamed M&M (for Mysterious and Molting), as she snoozes.

Up since the crack of dawn, the Billands of Wai‘anae made the drive out to White Plains Beach as part of their daily routine. Seven days a week, from sunup to sundown, they survey beaches from Yokohama Bay to Iroquois Point on the Leeward side of O‘ahu, looking for monk seals.

They keep an eye out for hooked or injured seals, and report their findings to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Science Center. Oftentimes, they also stand by until scientists can respond to an injured seal.

For M&M, who came ashore on this June morning, they set up a 25-foot rope border around the approximately 11-year-old seal as she slept, along with a sign explaining that the seals are resting and protected from harassment by state and federal laws.

Yet, despite their signs and efforts to educate, there are people on a daily basis who want to go up and touch the seals, take an up-close selfie or even feed them.

In the water, boogie boarders and surfers do not realize they should give the mammals a wide berth as their boards and fins can injure a surfacing seal.

The Billands have seen it all, and do their best to educate the public about the state and federal laws protecting the Hawaiian monk seal, ‘ilio-holo-i-kauaua (dog running in the rough seas).

They remind people that the seals are wild animals endemic only to Hawai‘i and are critically endangered, with their population hovering at about 1,100 statewide. The majority of the population is found in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, though a growing number—nearly 200—are now in the main Hawaiian islands, making their protection here more crucial than ever.

The Billands, also avid whale watchers, have volunteered for the past seven years, and do what they do out of a love for the animal. Barbara, 65, is a retired hairdresser and daughter of a fisherman who grew up watching the seals in the ocean during the 1970s. Robert, 67, is a retired pipe fitter for the state Board of Water Supply.

“I love doing this,” says Barbara. “I wish I discovered this when I was younger.”

The Billands track more than 30 monk seals that were either born on O‘ahu or frequent the isle, and know their histories, markings and lineage (the seals’ names are listed on the passenger-side window of their car) by memory. Over the years, they’ve witnessed the birth as well as the death of various monk seals.

Approximately 200 volunteers like the Billands watch over monk seals on Maui, Moloka‘i and O‘ahu, though not all are able to hold daily hours. One of the most dedicated, according to the Billands, is DB (Daniel Boone) Dunlap of Hawaii Kai, their mentor.

Dunlap, 71, is a retired firefighter who has been watching over the monk seals for the past 13 years. Dunlap used to cover the entire island, but with the Billands’ help on the Leeward side, he now focuses on the east side.

What they do takes not only an investment of time, but patience and people skills, as there are always a few individuals here or there who challenge the rules.

“Just let them be,” says Robert, when asked what he wanted people to know. “Don’t run after them or get in their face. They’re not aggressive. All they want to do is come up and rest.”

Life as a monk seal volunteer has its emotional ups and downs.

In 2008, they discovered Hoku, a five-month-old monk seal pup, dead after getting entangled in a fishing net on the east side. The Billands were full of sadness as they drove home, then recalled looking up and as if by magic—a cloud appeared resembling a monk seal.

On May 21 this year, Barbara was filled with joy to learn that Pohaku, a female monk seal they track, had given birth to a pup on Kaua‘i.

Scientists refer to the seals by their tag numbers, but the Billands refer to them by name because each seal has his or her own personality. They can tell you that M&M is a bit of a flirt, and that her male monk seal buddies Buster and Rip sometimes like to join her on shore. Kermit, one of their favorites, is an old male seal who sometimes hauls out at White Plains, too, but is likely on Kaua‘i during the summer. They describe him as “a gentle soul” with a laid-back attitude.

So next time you see those ropes up at your favorite weekend getaway, stop by and talk to Barbara or Robert, they love to teach others about these beautiful creatures and remember, keep your distance, cause nobody likes getting crowded when they are relaxing at the beach.

TO REPORT MONK SEAL SIGHTINGS (808) 220-7802 on o‘ahu stranded or entangled marine mammals (888) 256-9840