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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, November 22, 2003

Maui's mischievous seal captured again

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

KIHEI, Maui — A playful but dangerous Hawaiian monk seal that eluded capture on Maui's south coast this week finally ran out of luck yesterday.

The seal known as RM-34 rests in a cage on Maui after a shot of Valium. Marine officials finally captured the monk seal on the rocks at La Perouse Bay after four days.

Timothy Hurley • The Honolulu Advertiser

Federal marine officials nabbed the 300-pound mammal while it was napping on the rocks at La Perouse Bay.

It was the third time in a month that the seal, known to scientists as RM-34, was captured in hopes of moving it to a location isolated from human contact.

This time, officials were plotting to exile the creature to Johnston Atoll, some 800 miles from Hawai'i but still within the endangered species' natural range.

"Aloha, RM-34," said Brad Ryon, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist who had been pursuing the seal on Maui since Tuesday and joined in the capture yesterday morning.

The Coast Guard has agreed to fly the animal to Johnston Atoll.

The 7-foot-long seal began nipping and groping swimmers at Kealakekua Bay before being moved to near its South Point birthplace on Oct. 20. It swam back to Kealakekua within days and was recaptured Oct. 27 and taken to a remote Kaho'olawe shore.

Reports and photographs of RM-34 playing with seals on Kaho'olawe raised hopes it had found a new home.

But last weekend, the seal showed up on Maui, and scores of people were said to have been in the water playing with it. One woman was held under water, while a few other swimmers were nipped. Onshore, people were seen petting the seal and posing for photographs.

Such behavior could result in injury from bites or death from drowning, officials warn.

"People can prevent this type of situation by giving it some space. Leave the wildlife alone. Let them be wild," Ryon said.

After the seal was captured yesterday morning, it was trucked to an interim location at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Kihei. The animal was then taken to a private residence in Kahului to await the Coast Guard flight.

According to the agency's plan, biologists and a veterinarian will accompany the seal on the flight. Satellite and radio tags will be placed on the animal to help scientists follow its movements.

Ryon said officials were hoping to keep RM-34 in the main Hawaiian Islands' monk seal population. Had it stayed, the seal would have brought genetic diversity to the population, because its mother was born on Midway Island and had swam the length of the chain (and was last seen at 'Ewa Beach last fall).

"But this was three strikes (for RM-34)," Ryon said.

He said it was doubtful the seal would make it back to Hawai'i, because there is no chain of islands to follow.

But should a miracle happen, he said, officials will have to consider permanent captivity. Sea Life Park and the Waikiki Aquarium have captive monk seals, as does Sea World San Antonio.

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.