Photo: Two Hawaiian Monk Seals on the beach
The Hawaiian Monk Seal, or ‘Ïlioholoikauaua, is endemic to the Hawaiian islands - meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. These beautiful creatures have been on the Endangered Species list since 1976. The extreme decline in their population is a direct result of human behavior and activities. - Photos: Melody Bentz

“He ʻiole ko uka, he ʻiole ko kai,
He ʻiole holo i ka uaua
A rat in the upland, a rat by the sea
A rat running beside the wave.”
– Kumulipo, lines 554 & 555

Īlioholoikauaua, the “dog that runs in the rough sea” is commonly known as the Hawaiian Monk Seal, an endemic species that exists only in the Hawaiian archipelago, and nowhere else in the world. ʻĪlioholoikauaua can be found on all of the main islands, but favor the islands of Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Molokaʻi, and Oʻahu.

They are one of just two mammals endemic to Hawaiʻi – the other being Kānaka Maoli.

This endangered species was once prolific, and records show that there were as many as 15,000 individuals within the main Hawaiian Islands prior to western contact. The latest count conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found only 1,100 individuals in Papahānaumokuākea (the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) and just 300 within the main Hawaiian Islands.

Photo: Hawaiian Monk Seal

In 1976, the monk seal was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act due to their extreme decline in population.

Historical chants, oral histories, and Hawaiian language newspapers refer to the monk seal variously as ʻĪlioholoikauaua, ʻĪoleholoikauaua (rat running besides the wave), ʻĪliokai (seadog), ʻĪlio-o-kai(dog of sea), Sila (seal), Hulu (fur), and ʻĪliopiʻi (dog running up and down).

Interestingly, ʻĪliopiʻi is named for a peninsula at Kalaupapa, Molokaʻi, where monk seals were commonly seen. Another area named for the monk seal is Lae Kaʻïlio (headland of the dog) at Haʻena, Kauaʻi, also a popular spot for the seals. Both locations are historically named, likely due to the frequency of monk seal visits to those places.

Monk seals feed primarily on bottom and reef fishes, lobsters, octopus, and eel. They can dive more than 250 feet to hunt for food.

There are many threats to the survival of monk seals as a direct result of human behavior and activities. These include starvation due to overfishing in their habitat, which weakens them and affects their immunity to disease and their ability to avoid predators. It also causes low reproduction rates.

Other threats include the proliferance of marine debris, such as abandoned fishing lines and nets which can cause drowning due to entanglement.

Aquarium fish gathering for the aquarium trade also threatens the monk seal food chain and disrupts areas of habitation. Ongoing loss of habitat and contamination in our oceans can also cause unusually aggressive behaviors in male monk seals, adversely affecting the overall colony.

It is our collective kuleana to protect the ʻĪlioholoikauaua by being vigilant and pono. Lawaiʻa (fishermen) need to remove fishing nets and only use them within the parameters set forth by law, remove fishing lines, and use barbless hooks. Relocating to another spot when you spot a monk seal in the water while fishing is the pono choice. Never feed or touch them.

Due to their endangered species status, the law requires that you stay 100 feet away from monk seals resting on the shoreline. Additionally, dogs can harm monk seals and should be leashed and led away. Fortunately, the protected status of Papahānaumokuākea will help preserve the area as a puʻuhonua for the monk seal, but it would be a great loss if their numbers continue to decline and ʻĪlioholoikauaua stop visiting the main Hawaiian Islands.

“Kānaka are kin, not superior to other living things,” said Makaala Kaaumoana, vice chair of Hui Hoʻomalu i ka ʻĀina on Kauaʻi. “Balance is required for all to thrive. All life has a job in nature.”

NOAA has determined that the recent deaths in September and November 2020 of monk seal pups on the island of Kauaʻi were caused by drowning, most likely due to entanglement.

The public can also help protect the ʻĪlioholoikauaua by staying informed. Visit NOAA’s website at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/pacific-islands/endangered-species-conservation/hawaiian-monk-seal-updates .

Being observant while at the beach or out on the ocean is another way to kōkua. If you observe lay gill nets being used illegally, or at night, contact DOCARE at (808) 643-DLNR, or use the DLNRTip app.

You can also call NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement hotline at (800) 853-1964. Report all monk seal sightings, injuries, and strandings to NOAA’s Marine Wildlife Hotline at (888) 256-9840.

“He aliʻi ka ʻāina; he kauwā ke kanaka. The land is chief; people are its servant.”


Leinaʻala Kaina Peters is Kanaka Maoli, a cultural practitioner and conservationist from Kahaluʻu, Oʻahu.