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There is a handful of animal species native to Hawaii and Hawaii waters that residents take particular delight in spotting. Sadly, part of the reason for that is because those species are endangered and their populations have diminished significantly due to human activity. That fact alone makes observing one of those creatures in its natural environment noteworthy.
Beyond that, for native Hawaiians and many kama’aina, these animals are regarded as aumakua, or living manifestations of ancestral spirits. They are regarded with reverence and to be welcomed and respected. Seeing one of them is more of a visitation than a mere sighting. Keep your eye out for them, and always keep your distance when you do make a rare sighting. Thanks to conservation efforts and an informed public, these animals are seeing their populations slowly rebound.
Hawaii’s official state bird is the nene goose. It is particularly vulnerable because it is a ground-nesting species. The introduction of predators like the mongoose saw nene numbers plummet to critically endangered, with as few as 50 in Hawaii back in 1952. You’re most likely to see the nene goose on the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai, although a breeding pair was observed in Kahuku on Oahu in early 2014.
The Hawaiian monk seal, or ilio-holu-i-ka-uaua, is certainly the most lovable of Hawaii’s native animals. It is a conservation-reliant species, which means that human efforts at conservation, habitat management, and predator control are needed to maintain its population. They are most often observed sunning on beaches of all of the islands. Efforts toward protecting the monk seal include a law that allows for a fine of up to $25,000 and five years in jail for anyone found guilty of harassment or disturbance of a monk seal. If you’re lucky enough to spot one, keep a distance of 150 feet. The Hawaiian monk seal is the official state mammal of Hawaii.
The humpback, or whale, or kohola, is a seasonal visitor to Hawaiian waters, between the months of November and May. The majestic giants are drawn by Hawaii’s warm, shallow wters to breed, calf, and nurse their young. They can be seen Whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries decimated their population to just 1,400 whales. Aggressive efforts at protection and conservation, including the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Federal law prohibits approaching a humpback closer than 100 yards.
The Hawaiian owl, or pueo, is a treat to see in the wild. The common barn owl, which was brought to Hawaii in an effort to control the rodent population, is often mistaken for the pueo, which is much less common. Smaller and darker than the barn owl, the pueo can most often be seen throughout the day and into the night, while the barn owl is seen mostly at dusk and after dark. Seeing a pueo is believed by many to be good luck. But if you happen to see one, don’t point at it. That’s bad luck.
Hawaii is home to five varieties of turtle species. The most common is the green sea turtle, or honu. The species has been protected since 1978, which has led to an encourage increase in the population. They have become so common that Lanikea Beach on Oahu’s North Shore is now known as “Turtle Beach.”
There are relatively few native, large vertebrate species in the Hawaiian Islands, and all of those noted here are endangered and protected. Cherish the good fortune of seeing one of these beloved species, and show respect by keeping a good distance.