Kauai’s first monk seal pup of the season has already been weaned and the large pup is learning to forage for her own food on the South Side.
“That’s the first for the year. We’re expecting a few more this summer, too,” said Jamie Thompton, Kauai marine mammal response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Tagged RK42, the pup was born to RK13 on April 20 and stayed with her mother for 37 days before being weaned.
Monk seal mothers don’t forage after they’ve given birth. Instead, they nurse and swim with their pups until they get hungry enough to go back to deeper water to hunt, according to NOAA.
Once they’ve given birth, mothers transfer much of their body weight to their pups through nursing, and often the baby will grow while the mother shrinks to half her normal size.
The mom doesn’t return once she’s left and weaned pups tend to stay close to their birth site as they learn to hunt for food.
As of June 4, the RK42’s axillary girth — the circumference measured just below the front flippers — was 100 centimeters, with a 126 cm length from tip of the nose to the end of her tail.
Before the pup was tagged RK42, she was known as PK1 — the first pup of the 2018 season — and briefly, volunteers thought she was a male pup. A few weeks later, though, they confirmed that she was actually female.
Volunteers point to a pattern of five dots, resembling the number five on a pair of dice, as the “tell-tale sign” the seal is female.
After the pup was born, volunteers documented a few male seals visiting and a defensive mom chasing off intruders like R330, who got too close.
“It’s fair to say that this is the same way she’d respond to a person or a loose dog who gets too close to her,” NOAA volunteers said in a statement accompanying the video.
A veteran mother, RK13 has raised pups on Kauai since at least 2014, but chose an unusual pupping site this time around — seals usually pup in the same general location every time.
The actual location of the weaned pup hasn’t been released to the public.
“We prefer not to publicize the location,” Thompton said.
That’s to keep the baby seal safe and wild, but it’s not just too many people that NOAA is worried about when it comes to monk seal pups.
The biggest concern for this mother and pup pair are loose dogs, which have attacked seals and pups in this location before, volunteers said.
Dogs are a threat to the RK42 because she will be moving more slowly in the first few weeks after her birth.
If she follows in the footsteps of her mother, though, RK42 will be a resilient adult seal and a healthy addition to the Hawaiian monk seal population.
Blind in one eye, RK13 had a run-in with a shark in 2011 and was sighted with apparent shark wounds, one above her left fore-flipper and the other on her right side.
In 2017, she was sighted with a wound on her nose that was “possibly due to a shark bite,” and later that year she made headlines by trolling Kapaa’s Lihi Canal for fish scraps with 10-month old RH92.
RK13 was one of 30 adult seals seen in May on Kauai, according to volunteers. There were 303 total reported monk seal sightings on Kauai in May, compared to 303 in April, 299 in March, 259 in February and 336 in January.
Volunteers say it’s a good thing for the first pup of 2018 to be female, as it takes more females to grow the monk seal population.
April brought another pup to the monk seal population, born on an Oahu North Shore four days after RK42, but the pup was stillborn to first-time mother RK52.
It’s not an uncommon occurrence, according to NOAA, and many mothers who give birth to a stillborn on their first pup go on to have healthy offspring in later years.
NOAA asks that people do not disturb mother/pup pairs and remain at least 150 feet away.
“Be especially cautious when protective mothers are in the water, as they may mistake swimmers as a threat,” Thompton said.
Report all monk seal sightings or to become a volunteer with NOAA’s Kauai monk seal monitoring team, call 651-7668.
Jessica Else, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0452 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.