The other day I mentioned that one of the only things that would have made seeing the spinner dolphins any more amazing was if a monk seal happened to pass by the boat. Well, one apparently heard that I was hoping to see it and decided to haul up for a hello.
I was walking down the beach to a favorite spot to get sunset shots when I saw a small crowd of people with their cameras out. My first thought was, "another wedding" but no one was dressed up. So my second thought was, "Oh brother, a celebrity." As I started to pass, I realized there was indeed a celebrity laying on the sand -- only one that I actually get excited about. A Hawaiian monk seal was resting on the sand, surrounded by a few orange cones and signs telling people to leave the animal alone, and a single seal monitor ensuring that people followed the rules.
Hawaiian monk seals first appeared in the oceans somewhere around 11 million years ago, and it has changed little since then. It is the oldest species of seal on the planet, and it is also critically endangered. During the 1800s and 1900s, they were clubbed by whalers and seal hunters for meat, oil and their skins, and they were hunted by U.S. military forces stationed on Midway and Laysan during WWII. The species nearly disappeared, and today there are only around 1,100 individuals left. As one of the most rare marine mammal species on earth, the current threats facing them are marine debris (being tangled and drowned in abandoned nets or getting fishing hooks caught in their mouths), the problems associated with climate change and warming seas, and habitat loss from human encroachment, exactly like what has happened on the southern beaches of Kaua'i. If a monk seal is disturbed too often when hauled up on a beach, it won't return to that beach again, and its habitat is even further reduced.
Of course one of the most hated rules of photography was played out for me: If you think you'll need a long lens, you won't. If you think you won't need it, you will. I figured I was just heading out to get a few sunset shots and to enjoy a beach stroll, so I took my 7D with my 17-55mm, leaving my higher quality (but heavier) gear, long lens included, behind. Could not kick myself harder for that. Nor laugh at myself harder. Of course it would happen that I'd need it. Again it is proven: It's better to lug gear around just in case than to miss out on an amazing opportunity.
Luckily I still got a few shots I like, and the wide-angle lens allowed me to capture the monk seal in its beach-side habitat: surrounded by gawkers and people posing for a photo near the seal.
The difference between treatment of monk seals here versus what I experienced on Midway Atoll is amazing. I was fairly shocked to see how close the seal monitor allowed people to get to the resting animal -- we're talking more like 10 feet rather than the 150 feet requred on Midway Atoll. There, they are afforded so much more solitude with humans kept away at enough of a distance that a long lens is required. Of course, Midway is also considered critical habitat and thus it is a much more serious issue to leave monk seals undisturbed. Also, if this individual hauled up here and is able to catch forty winks (this seal stayed for several hours) then it must be accustomed to people. As is the case with most species, there are certain individuals that will tolerate noise and human presence more than others. My guess is there are some monk seals that don't mind the relatively crowded beaches of Kaua'i and some that would rarely haul up here, preferring quieter beaches along the Northwestern Hawaiian Island archipelago.
Either way, it was hard for me to stand there and see people getting so close to it, using the flashes on their point-n-shoots, rather than respecting the fact that this animal needs to rest and moving back. I took my shots from behind the barriers and moved away, grateful for the fact that I got to see a monk seal at all and marveling at the fact that there are so few of this amazing species left, but here was one individual, hauled up and sleeping the same sunny beach where I stood. After all, who could want to disturb this sleeping pile of adorableness??
On the way back from getting the sunset shots, I practically tripped over two green sea turtles (also an endangered species) that had hauled up to rest in the moonlight. The two boulders that definitely weren't there a few minutes before drew the attention of the few beachgoers that were still enjoying the evening. One couple pulled out an iPad and started taking pictures with the built-in flash. Another group of three did the same with their iPhones.
Though I really wanted to take pictures of these two gorgeous turtles, I couldn't bring myself to be one of them and fire off my flash in these turtles' faces when they were only looking for a peaceful place to rest. I stopped for a moment to appreciate them, but quietly kept walking past. I have a feeling as I start a career (or at least passionate hobby) as a wildlife photographer that I'm going to miss a lot of shots out of respect for the animals I'm photographing. So be it. The animals' welfare comes above a photo, any day.
A handful of other shots of Hawaiian Monk Seals can be found on my flickr stream, as well as in this slideshow on TreeHugger.com which will explain more about these wonderful animals. And some fun photos of green sea turtles eating man-o-war jellyfish can be found in this post.