There are few things in this world as cute as a seal pup. And unfortunately, there are not many places on this planet where an encounter with a seal is likely. However, if you are planning a vacation in Hawaii, then you may get lucky and bump into a Hawaiian monk seal on one of the state’s idyllic beaches.

The Hawaiian monk seal is endemic to Hawaii, occurring nowhere else in the world, but its numbers have been declining in recent decades. They are a protected species, and efforts are underway to help revive their numbers, so if you do have a lucky encounter, it’s important to know how to interact with them in a manner that causes the animal no harm or stress.

We’re going to have a look at the Hawaiian monk seal, how to interact with them, and where you can go on each island to maximize your chances of snapping the cutest of vacation photos… 

CONTENTS:

  1. The Hawaiian Monk Seal
  2. Etiquette
  3. Oahu
  4. The Big Island
  5. Maui
  6. Kauai & Niihau
  7. Molokai
  8. Lanai
  9. Other Islands
  10. Our Final Thoughts

The Hawaiian Monk Seal: A Quick Overview

The Hawaiian monk seal is an endangered pinniped, which is native to the Hawaiian archipelago—they do not naturally occur anywhere else on the planet.

Their population have fallen dramatically over the past few decades, but with the aid of conservation efforts, their numbers have become more settled recently. There are estimated to be fewer than 1,500 individual seals in the wild, and their continued survival is dependent on the continued success of the current conservation efforts.

Of the 1,500 seals thought to be living in the Hawaiian archipelago, the majority are located within the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are the collection of smaller islands and atolls which extend to the northwest from the main island group to Midway Atoll, which lies just outside the State of Hawaii.

The six main Hawaiian Islands – Oahu, The Big Island, Maui, Kauai, Molokai, and Lanai – are home to an estimated 400 individual Hawaiian monk seals.

Known locally as “ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua,” which translates as ‘dog running in rough water,’ the Hawaiian monk seal is one of two remaining species of monk seal in the world. The other is the Mediterranean monk seal.

Monk seals got their common name due to the few tiny hairs they have on top of their heads, like a monk. A chance encounter with a Hawaiian monk seal may well make your day, but we must ensure the encounter has no negative effects on the seal. (Related: Sharks In Hawaii).

Etiquette: What To Do If You See A Hawaiian Monk Seal

The critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal is protected under US federal and state laws. The most important thing to remember should you encounter a seal is that you need to keep your distance.

The seals often come ashore at the beaches, and as tempting as it is to get up close for a photo, please refrain.

Adult males can grow to around two meters in length, with the females being slightly larger. The larger females have been known to protect their young if you get too close, so keeping a safe distance is for your protection as well as the seals’ protection.

Harassing the seals, by getting too close, is a felony offense, and you could end up with a vacation that costs $50,000 more than you expected it to, or lasts five years longer than you anticipated!

The seals do need to spend time on land too, and when a seal comes to shore, it’s referred to as ‘hauling out.’ The seals haul out to rest after fishing, to molt, to give birth, and to wean the pups. Pups are weaned on shore for around two months.

They prefer sandy beaches to give birth and take care of the newly born pups. So if you see any roped off beach areas or signs indicating the presence of seals, please respect such warnings and leave the seals in peace. Take your photo from a respectable distance, and do not pass between the seals and the water’s edge, as this can leave the seals feeling threatened.

If you encounter a seal on a beach and there is no signage, please report the sighting so the authorities can investigate and, if needs be, erect ropes and signs to ensure the seal can enjoy some hard-earned rest or give birth.

Please use this email address to report sightings to NOAA – pifsc.monksealsighting@noaa.gov, or by calling the Maui Seal Sighting line at (808) 292-2372.

Where To See The Hawaiian Monk Seal On Oahu

Oahu Island is home to Honolulu, and as such, may well be your port of entry into the State of Hawaii. Situated slightly to the northwest of the main group of islands, only the islands of Kauai & Niihau sit between Oahu and the beginning of the Northwestern Hawaii Islands chain.

Being a little closer to this chain than some of Hawaii’s other islands may serve to increase your chances of a sighting. But Oahu is the busiest island in Hawaii, and certain areas, at least, may be a little too noisy for the likes of the monk seal. As such, don’t expect to see Hawaiian monk seals covering the sand at Waikiki Beach.

That being said, they have been seen occasionally resting on the beach at nearby Honuapo Bay and Kaimana Beach, near to the Diamond Head State Monument.

The white-sand beach at Nanakuli Beach Park has also had reported sightings over recent years. From this area, it is also possible to join a special seal tour, which will be educational in addition to increasing your chances of an encounter.

One more location to check out in Oahu is Kaena Point State Park, at the westernmost tip of the island. Bring your walking boots and hike the trail up to Kaena Point, and fingers crossed, you will get a glimpse of a seal on the beaches below the trail.

If you are intent on seeing a Hawaiian monk seal on Oahu, your best bet is to join a private tour. The tour companies will have the local knowledge to maximize your chances, and they will be well aware of the rules of engagement, ensuring the seal and yourself remain free from harm and distress.

Where To See The Hawaiian Monk Seal On The Big Island

If you have chosen Hawaii Island, more commonly referred to as the Big Island, for your vacation, there is a chance that you will get a lucky seal sighting.

The Kau coastline, in the shadows of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the Kau Forest Reserve, is your best bet. Sightings have been reported from a number of locations in this area towards the south of the Big Island. Kawa Bay is one such location, and a trip here should also include a detour to the nearby Ka Lae – the southernmost point in the United States.

If you are in and around the western shore of the Big Island, Honokohau Beach can give you the chance of an encounter – you may see turtles too. Also in this area is the Kekaha Kai State Park, another potential sighting location. Remember to ask the locals for any tips regarding recent sightings too.

Ke Kai Ola – The Marine Mammal Center next to Kona International Airport is also worth checking out.  These guys do excellent work, and they may be caring for injured seals when you visit.  If not, it’s still a great experience and you can learn a lot about the Hawaiian fauna.

Where To See The Hawaiian Monk Seal On Maui

To maximize your sighting chances on Maui, head to the eastern shore. There have been a few reported sightings along this coastline, with reports from Olowalu Beach (see picture below), Lahaina Harbor, and Kaanapali Beach in the northeast, and Makena Beach a little farther south.

Again, the best way to see them is probably by joining a tour. In Maui, there are popular sea-kayak and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) tours where you may get lucky. These tours require some physical effort, but the views from the ocean are stunning, with or without a visit from a monk seal. A sunset SUP or kayak tour is a great way to end your day in Hawaii regardless.

For the north shore of Maui, you can try your luck at Hookipa Beach. This beach is also popular for surfing and windsurfing, and you will also have a chance of spotting a turtle coming to the surface of the ocean for a breath.

Where To See The Hawaiian Monk Seal On Kauai & Niihau

Of the main islands within the Hawaiian archipelago, the smaller islands of Kauai and Niihau are the most northwesterly, closest to the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

As such, you will probably have the best chances of anywhere within the inhabited Hawaiian Islands of sighting the Hawaiian monk seal.

Elsewhere within the Hawaiian Islands, your sightings may be limited to individual seals, but on these two islands, there are a couple of small colonies. With seals here numbering between thirty and forty individuals, these colonies are home to the largest populations of the seals in the main island group.

The Kauai Monk Seal Watch Program has been set up to help monitor and protect the seals on Kauai.  If you encounter any yellow tape cordoning off an area of the beaches, it’s probably their volunteers helping a seal. You can visit their Facebook page for updates on recent activity.

One great location for spotting the seals on Kauai is Poipu Beach on the south shore. This is a popular beach, where local kids can be seen bodyboarding in the surf. Be careful of the rocks around the beach, especially if the surf is a little high.

The northwest of Kauai is where you will find the rugged and remote Napali Coast. Hike the coastal trail and keep your eyes on the secluded beaches below. You may spot some seals resting on the beaches, enjoying the tranquility of this area.

The ‘forbidden island’ of Niihau may offer you the chance of a sighting, but it’s very difficult to set foot on this privately-owned island. Access to this island is limited to a few half-day tours and helicopter rides.

The waters surrounding the island are accessible by boat, and as such, the best chance of spotting the seals here is from below the surface. Dive companies run trips here, and you have the chance of seeing them during your dives. Underwater photographers may find these trips especially alluring.

Where To See The Hawaiian Monk Seal On Molokai

On Molokai, your best bet is to head to the Kalaupapa National Historical Park.

The Kalaupapa peninsula is the remote region of Hawaii which was once used as a leprosy colony, where sufferers could remain away from the rest of the general population.

It’s also now an area where the seal populations have been studied by local scientists alongside scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Where To See The Hawaiian Monk Seal On Lanai

Fans of remote and quiet beaches should head to Polihua Beach on Lanai. There have been a few sightings on this tranquil beach, and locals may joke that you are more likely to see a Hawaiian monk seal on this beach than another person!

But don’t get your hopes up too much; that’s a comment on the quietness of the beach rather than on the number of seals here.

The reason the beach is not busy is that it takes some effort to reach it – you need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to tackle the 10-mile dirt road to the beach.

Where To See The Hawaiian Monk Seal On Other Islands

As mentioned earlier, the majority of the Hawaiian monk seal population is to be found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Unfortunately, these islands are practically inaccessible to tourists. This is to protect the endemic flora and fauna.

Essentially, this chain of islands is only accessible to scientists and fishermen who hold valid permits. Entry procedures are very strict, including only new clothing being allowed and a different set of clothing for each island to try and avoid invasive species being inadvertently introduced.

If you haven’t been lucky with a Hawaiian monk seal sighting on the main islands, unfortunately, you can’t count on a trip to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to deliver the goods.

Our Final Thoughts…

While a sighting of a Hawaiian monk seal is never a guarantee on your Hawaiian vacation, there is always a chance you will get lucky.

Follow the guidelines above to maximize your chances, and keep your fingers crossed. But, please, always remember to respect the seals: give them space; do not cut off their route to the ocean; do not feed them; just leave them be and admire them from a safe and respectful distance.

And if you are lucky enough to see one, please report the sighting to the authorities who monitor their numbers and well-being. And keep an eye out for a tag with a red number on it if you do see a seal – the number is their individual identification, and if you know this, please mention it when you report your sightings…