Consider the Monk Seal by Melissa

On the southeast side of the island of Oahu, rests a sharp, well-demarcated rock terrace overlooking a semilunar shaped bay. The name of the bay, Hanauma Bay, from the Hawaiian words, hana and uma, literally, and somewhat redundantly, means curved bay. A steep, paved path rises from the beach, above the azure waters and scalloped coral formations that lie below the ocean’s surface. Flanking the bay on either side are faulted layers of volcanic rocks that create whirlpools, eddy currents, and rip tides where the waves crash at them in rhythmic, dynamic time. You may observe these brown rock layers from aloft, and even from this distance, you may see the shape of eons of plate tectonics that have resulted in their undulating, crimped folds, and their tilted, topsy-turvy appearance.

As a casual witness here, you will not share an interaction with the endangered species, the Hawaiian monk seal, also named ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua by Native Hawaiians, or “dog that runs through rough water,” though interactions between humans and monk seals are increasing. Their numbers, however, despite the monk seals’ false sense of comfort among humans, are dwindling. The monk seals may resemble pets with their whisker-like vibrissae, and their adorable snouts, but they are not dogs, and they are considerably larger than the little Welsh Corgi who swam out into Hanauma Bay to return a lost bathing suit top to Elvis Presley’s sweetheart, while Elvis sang “No More” on the beach, in the 1961 romantic comedy Blue Hawaii. If a monk seal basks on the beaches of Hawaii here where Elvis once frequented, it is recommended that you stay at least 150 feet away. It is recommended that you call animal control, so that the seal can be cordoned off for its protection, and yours.

From above the bay, you will see large waves breaking, spraying to white, where the monk seals swim among them. You may see surfers briefly rising and falling in the breaking swells, trying to avoid a harsh landing that can be punishing to both the delicate reef corals as well as to their own bodies. Your camera, if it is a good one, may capture the scenic, sometimes unpredictable, turbulent, water, with precise resolution. You will think this is a fine place for a family photo, and you are not incorrect. At one time, each year, over three million tourists visited Hanauma Bay, snapping the same photo opportunity on film which you now capture on your digital media, deleting it nonchalantly if it is not to your exact liking. Three million may not seem like a tremendous number for this popular destination, but it is nearly 2,500 times the number of Hawaiian monk seals, about 1,200, that is, that are still endemic to the Hawaiian Islands.

As a tourist, you may look at home here, feel at home, comfortable, casual, lounging on the beach beneath the seventies-style lifeguard stands, even snorkeling among the remaining Parrott fish, but you’ll remember that you are not. Maybe it is not your first time at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, once called simply Hanauma Bay Beach park. As a tourist, though, if you are really the self-indulgent, vacationing kind, you may be pleased to learn that despite the disappointing reminder that this Pacific respite is not your own, your presence here is not forgotten. Perhaps you are returning to Hanauma Bay on your honeymoon for a second time, or a third time, with your own children. Perhaps you have an older photo standing on the same ledge, overlooking the marine embayment below, or beside the trapezoidal orange and yellow lifeguard stands when they were novel things.

You were a passive being then, pulled along by your parents, unaware that your presence contributed to the decline of fish populations, or to the damage of marine DNA in the coral reefs of the shallow water, and to the destruction of marine reproductive and immune functions by toxic sunscreens like oxybenzone and benzophenone. The latter is used in cosmetics as a skin bleaching cream, so it is no surprise that it causes bleaching of the fragile corals here, a permanent lightening effect that remains, following your earlier visits when you snorkeled over them, feeding bread crumbs and frozen peas to the once numerous schools of fish that you could reach out and touch. You will not see the damage to the reefs from this scenic overlook, this iconic photo spot, the same way you may notice the fine lines now present at the corners of your eyes, your smile. Those were not there in my childhood photos, nor my honeymoon photos, you may lament, but not to worry. Those sun-damaged, rough edges can be softened with digital imaging programs like Photoshop, and by beauty filters that erase the unkind effects of time on your selfies. Your melasma may be treated with benzophenone.

From the ledge, a few rogue hens, and colorful roosters, too, may congregate around you, but you’ll not run away screaming, like your children may, swimming in the ocean below, should a Hawaiian monk seal swim by them, seemingly unafraid of human interaction. Sometimes, these 400-pound mammals may even seem playful, unnaturally accustomed to human contact, often fed by people in ways that make them less able to learn to hunt skillfully on their own. Monk seals pull each other under water, however, wrestle their siblings, and nip at one another, so it is best that they do not play with your children.

After your day at Hanauma Bay, when you’re enjoying a Mai-Tai at a beach-side restaurant on Waikiki, your waitress will tell you that the key to making a great one of these pineapple garnished drinks is to use fresh lime juice.

“It makes all the difference,” she’ll insist, with a smile that beams Aloha.

Another waiter will tell you that, “Cold crushed ice makes the drink great,” in addition to the usual rum, Curacao liquor, and orangeat syrup, and a local bartender will share another, sweeter variation of the drink that he swears by in tips. Perhaps it is the diversity, this variation, that has made the cocktail popular throughout so many Polynesian islands, as the drink is not endemic to Hawaii as the monk seal is. And despite the drink’s greater popularity in the Polynesian islands, it was created by Victor Bergeron in California, where it originated at his restaurant, Trader Vic’s. As you watch the Hawaiian tides while sitting under the shade of a rooty, tangled Banyan tree, reflect on how genetic variability allows for the greater survival of a species to persist in the wild, and how the monk seal has one of the lowest rates of genetic diversity among species, limiting its reproductive fitness. Ultimately, the monk seal depends on frequent, successful mating for its survival, as well as an environment free of external stress, which allows mothers to nurse their pups.

Where they cannot, the pups may be left, abandoned, unable to survive.

I am not suggesting that you abandon snorkeling altogether in favor of observing Hanauma Bay from a distance. You would miss seeing the other endemic species of fish that are only found in Hawaii—the brown and white striped Hawaiian Turkeyfish, and the Mamo, or Hawaiian Sergeant, the yellow and black Nohu, or Shortsnout Scorpionfish, and the Kole Goldring Sturgeonfish, to name a few.

These fish populations are also declining at Hanauma Bay.

But swim lightly in their waters, avoiding the giant turtles which, too, are protected. If you see a Hawaiian monk seal, remember that it faces the threat of extinction, as the Caribbean monk seal did not endure, and which the Mediterranean monk seal faces, too. Tread carefully, over black sand beaches and lava rock, so that you may leave only temporary footprints behind you in the sand. The monk seal can dive to almost 1,800 feet, submerging itself for up to twenty minutes, but it cannot travel as you can, across the entire Pacific Ocean, in an airplane. It lives only nearby the Hawaiian archipelago.

You may notice, too, and wonder, how there are fewer American tourists traveling here than Asian ones, making the long, expensive journey, to see the gorgeous volcanoes and lush vegetation of Hawaii, where orchids not only garnish your drinks, but fall, literally, at your feet, from the trees, where you walk.

Why is this so?

Hawaii is my home, you may think, since its statehood was secured in 1959, and was long before this when its place as a U.S. Territory was secured by white landowners and businessmen involved in the sugar trade, who annexed it from the Hawaiian Kingdom and Queen Lili’ uokalani. The banana palms here resemble those in south Florida. Why then, don’t more of the tourists? The climate is not unlike Miami, where the average vacation costs far less. The brush plants on the arid sides of the West Maui Mountains are not so different than the landscape of Texas. Reflect on the Hawaiian monk seal then, and know that where there is mobility, there is survival, and where mobility remains a source of enjoyment, and existence, whether it is geographic or financial, this is really something to be cultivated.

BIO: Melissa Franckowiak is a practicing physician and an MFA student. She writes as Melissa Crickard at times, and has been published in Bird’s Thumb, Motherly, Mothers Always Write, The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Rio Grand Review, Ghost Parachute, Traffic East, Nanny Magazine, Dark Ink Anthology, Curating Alexandria, Montana Mouthful, Wanderlust, and the anthology, Children of Zeus. She is the owner of a chatty Panama Amazon parrot and a lover of all things outdoors.

Find more on her Contributor’s Profile: Melissa Franckowiak: Profile

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