We’ve written about Hawaiian monk seal encounters on this blog before. We’ve always encouraged visitors and residents alike to respect monk seals’ space, in the (fairly) rare instance of a monk seal sighting on any one of Hawaii’s countless beautiful beaches.
Monk seals, after all, are an endangered species. A recently released study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) examines the possible effects of social media enthusiasts posing with the lovable creatures on the overall population in the Hawaiian Islands.
The study looked at nearly 2,400 social media (Instagram) posts with the #monkseal hashtag. The study says that the popularity of handheld devices like smartphones with high resolution cameras can provide valuable information to scientists studying endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal.
The NOAA looked at images posted in a one-year period. They took biological and location information (thanks to GPS meta-data), behavioral concerns, human disturbance, and public perceptions about the unique Hawaiian species. The information in the study indicates that social media is a valuable tool in conservation and protection efforts for rare or endangered species around the world.
There is good news in the study: social media can help scientists study and protect populations like the Hawaiian monk seal and others. But some of the data has caused concerns about up-close interactions with monk seals which can have negative effects, too.
For example, of the nearly 2,400 posts studied, 22% of them showed people within 3 meters of a monk seal. That is far more than to 50-meter distance recommended by the NOAA and other agencies and organizations that monitor the species. 17% of the images indicated a disturbance to the animal.
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Most of the Hawaiian monk seal population is concentrated in the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (about 1400 animals). But as conservation and protection efforts continue to be effective, some animals have made their way to the much more densely populated main islands.
Combined with increased Hawaii visitor numbers and ubiquitous “selfie” enthusiasts, this means that there is increasing potential for disturbances of animals that are just trying to relax on the beach. Disturbing a monk seal could send it back into the ocean without having slept enough or warmed up enough.
It’s encouraging to know that social media can actually help endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal recover. It’s also alarming to know that a relatively high percentage of those encounters resulted in a disturbance to an animal.
As Hawaii Aloha Travel has always advised Hawaii visitors, enjoy a rare sighting of a Hawaiian monk seal if you ever happen to be so lucky. It is an unforgettable experience. Take pictures. But never approach an animal, and keep at least 50 meters away.