HONOLULU — A swimmer at a beach in Waikiki was injured this weekend after encountering an endangered Hawaiian monk seal with a young pup.
Hawaii Marine Animal Response, a nonprofit conservation organization that helps monitor protected species, said their workers witnessed a swimmer come into contact with the mother monk seal known as Rocky on Sunday morning.
The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources said in a statement that the victim is a 60-year-old elementary school teacher from California. The woman received lacerations to her face, arm and back, the agency said.
State officials said they would not recommend charges or fines for the woman and are not naming her because she requested anonymity.
The Hawaii Marine Animal Response said in a statement that the seal gave birth to a pup about two weeks ago on Kaimana Beach in Waikiki, the same area where the swimmer was injured.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Hawaii Marine Animal Response have been watching the pair and warning people to stay away.
It is against the law to touch, harass, injure or kill monk seals. People are told to stay at least 150 feet (46 meters) away from a mother seal and pup, though that recommendation is not a law.
The shoreline where the seals live is roped off, and beachgoers are warned of the dangers of getting too close to the nursing mother.
“We ask people to please follow the guidance and instructions provided by HMAR, NOAA, Ocean Safety, or other authorized parties on the beach,” the organization said in the statement. They said the swimmer was transported by EMS.
A message left with the Honolulu Emergency Services Department was not immediately returned.
NOAA Fisheries is still reviewing the incident. But in a statement emailed to The Associated Press, the agency said, “Mother seals can move incredibly fast in the water, and we urge people to consider using alternate areas for water activities when mothers with pups are in the area.”
They anticipate these seals will remain in the area for about a month and said people must observe signs and guidance from officials.
It is a felony to disturb monk seals, of which there are less than 1,600 remaining in the wild. The animals are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
“People are again reminded that Hawaiian monk seal moms with pups are protective, can be dangerous, and have inflicted serious wounds on nearby swimmers,” Hawaii Marine Animal Response said. “We continue to warn people not to engage in in-water activities when a monk seal mother with a pup are in the area and to stay at least 150 feet from mother seals with pups.”
A witness shared video of the encounter with The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The footage shows the mother seal in the water with her pup as the swimmer approaches. The seal then comes into contact with the swimmer and pulls the person under water.
The person was able to make it back to shore with help from bystanders.
“It’s a mama seal that’s protecting its pup, and there happens to be a human who is at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Markus Faigle, who captured the incident on video, told the Star-Advertiser. “So it’s not a seal attacking a human; that’s for me the totally wrong way of looking at this.”