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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, August 27, 2004

Monk seal on Kaua'i bites pushy tourist in the butt

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

PO'IPU, Kaua'i — One monk seal bit a tourist on the buttock yesterday after being shoved.

A mother Hawaiian monk seal and her pup play in the surf at Kaua'i's Po'ipu Beach Park. The pup is 24 days old today.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

Another pair of seals, a mother and her 3-week-old pup, kept hundreds of visitors and residents off the beach.

What's happening at Po'ipu Beach is an example of the challenges that remain in efforts to keep endangered Hawaiian monk seals and people apart.

The 64-year-old man who was bitten was not seriously hurt in the encounter, which took place in the water fronting the Sheraton Kaua'i Hotel. No stitches were required, but he got a tetanus shot and antibiotics.

"The individual got aggressive with the seal. He was trying to get to shore and he tried to push the seal away. I talked to him afterwards, and he was more embarrassed than anything," said Brad Ryon, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries marine biologist.

The biting incident was only the second known on Kaua'i. Three years ago, a nursing mother seal snapped at the hindquarters of a swimmer who got a little too close to her pup. The mother seal is the same one that had another pup on Po'ipu Beach this year.

The mom hasn't gone after any humans this year, but she wrestled aggressively yesterday morning with a young male seal that approached her 23-day-old pup. The male may have been the same one that bit the tourist.

For all of yesterday's activity, this year hasn't been a really big seal year. In some years, as many as five big seals have hauled out on the south Kaua'i beach at the same time.

Wildlife officials and a team of 86 trained volunteers keep a watch on the mother and pup, answering visitors' questions, and explaining why they've roped off the beach where the seals are present.

"The mothers don't take well to disturbance," said Jean Souza, Kaua'i manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

Most of the folks viewing the seals about noon yesterday seemed happy to leave the beach to the animals.

"It's cool. It's an animal and we should take care of them," said Jim Goodrich of Palo Alto, Calif.

Wailua resident Alejandro Hernandez brought his nephew, Alex Lopez of Makakilo, to the beach specifically to see the seals.

"It's good. It's time for humans to do something for endangered species. I feel sorry for the tourists who come so far to visit a safe beach, but I think it's worth it," Hernandez said.

Most visitors do manage to get to the beach, though, because of a new cooperation between wildlife officials, state and county governments, volunteers and the local visitor industry, said Margy Parker, executive director of the Po'ipu Beach Resort Association. The seal teams try to act quickly to open beaches when the seals have swum away from them.

"This year, there's a remarkable cooperation going on. Every time they change the part of the beach that's closed, they call me, and I blast e-mail to about 60 resort properties in the area, including every hotel and condominium project, vacation rentals, time shares and little inns," Parker said.

Yesterday, visitors could picnic on the grass at the beach park, and if they wanted to swim, they had only to walk a few dozen yards to the east, to the beach fronting the Marriott Waiohai Resort. And for most yesterday, that didn't seem too far to go.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808)245-3074.