Community discusses what should happen to KP2.
KP2 has a sleek, new coat after his recent molt. Photo by Val Bloy.
By Catherine Cluett
At the Kaunakakai Wharf, a young boy and a seal swim together. They dive and chase each other in a tumble of arms, flippers and smiles. Kahi is eleven years old, and the Hawaiian monk seal, named KP2, is just over a year. Kahi said the first time he remembers seeing KP2 was this past summer. His friends were scared of swimming with the seal, but Kahi jumped in and told them, “See how friendly he is? He won’t hurt you.”
From then on, Kahi and KP2 were inseparable. Adults who have watched them play say KP2 recognizes Kahi and would leave other kids to play with him.
But KP2, the young seal that has made Kaunakakai Wharf his home and befriended many of the humans in the area, has already reached a weight of 165 pounds. His play, once the gentle frolics of a pup, is becoming rougher as he matures. Kahi’s mother said she has become leery about letting her son swim with the seal.
Kahi knows his days of swimming with his friend are over. But the bond he formed with the seal is still strong.
“Whoever goes to the wharf and thinks it’s theirs, it’s not,” explains Kahi. “The ocean is not ours, it’s God’s. Whoever doesn’t like KP2, fish somewhere else.”
Abandoned by his mother on Kauai at 24 hours old, KP2, short for “Kauai pup two,” was found by NOAA specialists. He was raised in captivity for eight months before his release in Kalaupapa last November. A few months later, he appeared at the Kaunakakai Wharf.
In June, NOAA transported him back to Kalaupapa, hoping he would socialize with other young seals and “stay wild.” However, in just two days, KP2 had made his way back to the wharf. Now KP2 is one of the estimated 110 Hawaiian monk seals living today in the Main Hawaiian Islands.
KP2 is the first ever successfully hand-reared Hawaiian monk seal, according to NOAA Marine Mammal Response Coordinator David Schofield. But some are questioning the definition of success, saying NOAA caused the problem of the too-friendly seal by saving the pup.
Many fishermen believe Hawaiian monk seals pose direct competition for already-diminishing food sources, and would just as soon see the species not survive. NOAA specialists and volunteers are worried that KP2’s safety may be in jeopardy.
“If these animals don’t survive, it’s going to be because of the people, not the seals,” said Molokai resident Karen Holt.
To Stay or To Go
Molokai volunteers have logged hundreds of hours monitoring KP2 at the wharf to make sure both he and the humans he associates with are safe. They worry that as KP2 matures, he may unintentionally harm the children or adults he tries to play with. Because of this, NOAA requests that no one swim, approach or interact with KP2.
Hawaiian monk seals are an endangered species, with less than 1200 individuals living today – and only in Hawaii. It is against the law to approach or disturb them.
But KP2 is often the one to approach humans, not vise versa. Incidents of KP2 nipping swimmers or trying to get attention from people launching boats on the ramp have already been recorded.
“We have a choice where to swim,” said Molokai resident and paddler Penny Martin. “We are the visitors to the ocean.”
She explained that when people see a shark in the water, they do not say, “This is our place, the shark needs to move.” Martin said she believes it should be the same for the monk seal.
Martin suggested the solution might be in funding more game wardens to monitor the area.
Molokai resident and activist Walter Ritte advocated letting KP2 stay at the wharf and continuing to use the seal as an educational tool for the community.
“It’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity,” he said.
But as much as some community members might like to see KP2 left undisturbed, NOAA specialists and volunteers realize it is very difficult for people to change their habits for a seal. Because of this, relocation looks like it will be part of KP2’s future.
Schofield said NOAA is currently investigating relocating KP2 to either Niihau, Kaula Rock or Lehua Rock – all remote islands at the end of the Main Hawaiian chain but not as far as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
While options of “display captivity” like Sea Life Park are still being discussed, Schofield said he thinks it is worth giving KP2 one more shot at living in the wild before confining him to captivity forever. He pointed out that while KP2 has imprinted on humans, he still exhibits “wild” behaviors. He forages extensively on his own, and has been seen with other seals.
Many community members have expressed concern that the proposed areas are known to have an abundance of sharks. They worry that KP2 would not survive long if he were moved.
“Sharks are a part of a monk seal’s world,” explained NOAA specialist Jeff Walters. “They’re a risk, but risks are everywhere. There’s no perfect place to put him.”
Walters stressed that KP2 has undoubtedly encountered sharks in his travels. Walters said he is more concerned about harm to the seal from human interaction than from sharks.
Plans are still under investigation and discussion. If KP2 is relocated to the Niihau area, Schofield said it would likely take place before the beginning of November.