How “Real Reality Television” Might Save the Monk Seal

By Charles Littnan, Lead Scientist of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Fisheries

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the oldest species of seal on the planet, having resided in the tropical waters of the Hawaiian archipelago for millions of years.  But their tenure in paradise is perilously close to its end.  In the last 75 years the monk seal population has declined dramatically and only about 1,100 seals remain in the wild.


While there is a steep decline and many threats faced by the population in the remote part of the seals’ range, there is a glimmer of hope.   A small population of seals has established itself in the main Hawaiian Islands…and has begun to grow.  Quickly.  In 2000 there were 15 seals in the main islands…12 years later there are now 150-200.  This increase provides an important toehold for the population and raises hope for the species recovery.  But an increase of seals in the heavily human-populated area has resulted in a number of new and complex management issues.  Some of the key issues are seals, their diet, and interactions with fisheries.  There are a number of very real concerns voiced by community members but the way forward to finding solutions is hampered by a lack of data, poor communication, and a good amount of misinformation.  The host of issues, not just fisheries concerns, has increased animosity towards the seals and recently there have been a number of seal killings.


The need to address concerns about monk seal foraging and diet gave rise to this exciting collaboration and the Hōʻike ā Maka Project.  The intent of the project is to understand and share images of the feeding and underwater behavior of Hawaiian monk seals, and lay to rest many of the myths and misconceptions regarding monk seals and their impact on the local marine environment and its resources.  We plan to deploy seal-borne video cameras to study how monk seals feed and use their marine habitat in the main Hawaiian Islands.  The discoveries will be critical to understanding the seals’ ecology, ensuring their continued existence, and building a culture of coexistence between man and seal.  But more importantly, our project is going to abandon the typical research model of scientists working alone and reporting their findings back to the public.  We want to include our community in all aspects of the work.  To that end, we will work directly with local researchers, ocean users (fishers, divers, surfers and others), students, and NGO’s, during the deployments, the “reveal session” where we get the first glimpses of each monk seal’s underwater world, and during the analysis and interpretation.


We hope that through this project greater trust and partnership can be fostered between everyone that has a stake in this issue.  We are two months away from our first field trip and we will be posting blog entries as we continue on our adventure.  It will be a journey filled with amazing wildlife, fascinating discovery, heated conflict, and, hopefully, enlightenment and understanding for all.  Please join us.

Besides following our work on this blog, you can also make sure that this important scientific research becomes a reality.  We need the assistance of citizens scientists everywhere and have an urgent need to raise at least $7,500 by September in order to cover the cost of highschool student research grants, tracking tags, and other instrumentation. Wherever you are in the world, become part of the Hawaiian monk seal research and conservation family by making a donation at:


Learn More

Hōʻike ā Maka Project

Monk Seal Facts and Photos

Monk Seal Research

Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program on Facebook


Changing Planet

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Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.