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Planning a visit to Kauai? We regularly add news and information about events, activities, and places to see on The Garden Isle.

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Sheila Heathcote has lived in Hawaii since 1986. She's a published author on the topic of Kauai and the owner of Hale O Nanakai Bed & Breakfast.

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Monday
Feb072011

Monk Seals and Turtles and Whales, Oh my!

Kauai is called Paradise, and we often have a yellow brick road of sunshine that glides across the ocean waves. Unlike the "lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" of OZ, Kauai is home to some exquisite sea creatures!

The Hawaiian Humpback Whale

Humpback whales are known for their magical songs, which travel for great distances through the world's oceans. These sequences of moans, howls, cries, and other noises are quite complex and often continue for hours on end. Scientists are studying these sounds to decipher their meaning. It is most likely that humpbacks sing to communicate with others and to attract potential mates.

These whales are found near coastlines, feeding on tiny shrimp-like krill, plankton, and small fish. Humpbacks migrate annually from summer feeding grounds near the poles to warmer winter breeding waters closer to the Equator. Mothers and their young swim close together, often touching one another with their flippers with what appear to be gestures of affection.

Females nurse their calves for almost a year, though it takes far longer than that for a humpback whale to reach full adulthood. Calves do not stop growing until they are ten years old.

Humpbacks are powerful swimmers, and they use their massive tail fin, called a fluke, to propel themselves through the water and sometimes completely out of it. These whales, like others, regularly leap from the water, landing with a tremendous splash. Scientists aren't sure if this breaching behavior serves some purpose, such as cleaning pests from the whale's skin, or whether whales simply do it for fun.

Hawaii's humpback whale season technically begins in November when the gargantuan mammals make the long journey from cold north Pacific Ocean seas to calve in Hawaii’s famously warm waters. But January marks the start of the peak season. As many as 10,000 whales winter in Island waters, a good number of them visible from our state’s many coastal scenic lookouts.

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles

The green turtle is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In 1978, the Hawaiian population of the green turtle was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Green turtles were a source of food, tools, and ornamentation for early Hawaiians. With the arrival of western culture, however, the level of exploitation of this resource increased dramatically. Large numbers of green turtles were harvested throughout the Hawaiian Islands through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1974, the State of Hawaii finally passed a regulation providing some protection, but this was virtually ignored until 1978, when the Hawaiian green turtle was placed on the list of threatened species.

In other parts of the world, green turtles face a serious threat from the destruction and loss of nesting sites. Fortunately, over 90% of nesting activity for the Hawaiian green turtle population occurs at the French Frigate Shoals, inside a National Wildlife Refuge System administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This, combined with its threatened status under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, has created an environment in which the Hawaiian green turtle should prosper. Unfortunately, the Hawaian green still faces severe threats, most notably fibropapilloma tumors and degradation of foraging habitat. Current Hawaiian green turtle population levels are still thought to be below pre-western contact, and probably pre-World War II levels as well. In 1992, the estimate of mature female green turtles associated with the French Frigate Shoals was set at roughly 750.

The Hawaiian Monk Seal

Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua is the name used to describe the Hawaiian monk seal. Literally it means, "the dog that runs in the rough (seas)." These seals get their common name "monk seals" because of their bald appearance, solitary habits and a fold of skin behind their heads which resembles a monk's hood.

In recorded history there have only been four seals born on the main Hawaiian islands. Two of those births occurred in 1991 on the North shores of Oahu and Kauai. In both cases, volunteers from the community guarded the mother and pup from a distance to ensure that they would not be disturbed.

A newborn pup is jet black in color and weighs about 30 pounds. Its loose, velvety skin cloaks its body like an over sized coat. A mother seal will nurse her pup for a period of five or six weeks. During that time she is constantly at her pup's side and does not go off to feed herself. At the end of the nursing period the depleted mother will leave her pup to tend to her own nutritional needs.The newly weaned pup, called a weaner, is by then fat with blubber. It can live off of its stored fat for a while but must soon learn to catch food on its own.

Monk seals feed largely on fish, eels, octopus, and lobster that they usually catch at night. In the daylight hours, the seals spend much of their time sleeping. When on land, they may look lethargic, sick or even dead. Actually, the seals come ashore to get their much needed rest and should not be disturbed or approached.