While federal authorities keep a close eye on a monk seal and her growing pup in Waikiki, their biggest concern right now is the safety of those who linger nearby.
A close call Thursday has the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration worried.
RH58, also known as Rocky, and her daughter have been swimming in the waters off Kaimana Beach for a few weeks now. They’re expected to remain there for at least another three to four weeks.
Officials are urging swimmers to stay out of the water, especially after Thursday’s close encounter with several swimmers that NOAA says could have been much worse.
We’re told there were four swimmers in the water Thursday morning by Elks Lodge, which is about 176 yards away from Kaimana Beach.
The swimmers thought they were safe enough away from the pup, but NOAA says monk seals are unpredictable and the best thing to do now is completely stay out of the water.
“We’re swimming along here, and all of a sudden, I look up, I was looking at my niece, and it is right next to her,” said Marianette Kauahikaua, an Elks Lodge member.
The monk seal pup was floating nearly six feet away from the swimmers.
“Doing our exercise with our noodles, doing crunches, we had floated out. I had just kind of looked to the side, and I just saw this black head pop up, and I said, ‘That doesn’t look like a floatie,'” said Rashonda Burkes, who is visiting from Arkansas.
The swimmer didn’t realize the danger she was in until she noticed someone from Kaimana Beach trying to get her attention.
The woman told the swimmers to get out of the water, so that’s what they did.
Later, Kauahikaua explained to her niece that if they encountered the mother monk seal, who was floating nearby, it could have been much worse.
“Eating your face off, you know, taking a limb from what people were telling me,” she said. “They could just dismember you. They don’t know what they’re biting. All they know is to protect their pup.”
NOAA says she’s right. Mother monk seals are known to get aggressive to keep their pup safe and often mistake swimmers for predators, like a shark.
“In this scenario, we are genuinely concerned about human safety. Human safety is our biggest concern this moment,” said Aliza Milette-Winfree, NOAA marine mammal biologist.
NOAA says it has records of several attacks between mother monk seals and humans, some involving serious injury.
“This is a dangerous scenario for them to be in the water. This isn’t just a sleepy seal. This is a protective mother,” Milette-Winfree said. “I would certainly not bring my child out in the Kaimana, Elks Club, Outrigger Canoe Club area. I would not be swimming in that area right now.”
NOAA says it is working closely with nearby Outrigger Canoe Club and Elks Lodge on warning its guests about staying out of the water. Warning signs are posted.