When Ronalee Eckberg and Tim Robinson from the Kauai Monk Seal Watch Project first started coming to Molokai five years ago, the local population of monk seals was estimated at 10 to 15 seals.
Much has changed since these two began visiting Molokai fourth grade classes to educate our youth about the endangered Hawaiian monk seals. This year, the population of monk seals that spend time on Molokai is between 40 and 50.
But the biggest impact on the KMSWP came from a company known for making dolls. In 2009, American Girl Publishing approached Robinson to consult on children’s literature related to the American Girl dolls product line. As a result, The Girl of the Year Doll for 2011, Kanani, lives in Hawaii and helps save monk seals in the plots of the two books published this year.
Robinson hopes this wide exposure through the American Girl books will raise awareness about Hawaii’s endemic monk seals, which number between 1,100 and 1,200 and are still endangered.
“The animals are only really visible when on beaches to rest but I think we’re making a start at national recognition with this project,” said Robinson. “The first step is name recognition, and this is going to really put it out there.”
With the American Girl catalogue going out to 41 million families, Robinson hopes that the name “Hawaiian Monk Seal” will be introduced to 12 to 16 million people. With the Kanani doll, associated products and a stuffed seal in the 2011 American Girl catalogue, the potential audience is enormous.
Today, Robinson and Eckberg had a captive audience of nine fourth graders at Maunaloa Elementary School. Each student asked thoughtful questions on the biology and ecology of monk seals. The students also learned about the impact that the North Pacific garbage patch has on monk seals.
Of course any time you discuss monk seals on Molokai, KP2 always comes into the conversation. Now known as Ho’ailona instead of KP2, the monk seal became famous when the Wall Street Journal came to Molokai to report the story about how Ho’ailona was removed from the Kaunakakai wharf area by officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Robinson and Eckberg explained to the students why NOAA took Ho’ailona when he was no longer a small pup and began to endanger the swimmers he used to play with in the water. He was taken to California because of his cataracts. Unfortunately, Ho’ailona’s poor eyesight will never allow him to live in the wild again.
Robinson also wanted to thank Michael Drew, general manager of the Hotel Molokai, for his continuing support of their program with his donation of hotel rooms for the visit. “This really enables us to continue providing the school presentations for Molokai’s fourth graders,” said Robinson.
As the most endangered marine mammal living in U.S. waters, monk seals must not be disturbed in their natural environment. Students shared stories about seeing monk seals around Molokai and having friends or family members bother them. Because many people do not understand how to treat monk seals, the KMSWP handed out fact sheets to the students.
Here are a few of the bullet points on the fact sheet:
• Never approach or disturb a seal.
• Never try to feed a seal.
• Never take dogs on the beach without a leash. They can injure seals or make them sick.
• If you need to walk by a seal on the beach, go on the mauka side, not between the seal and the water.
Report seal sightings to 1-800-256-9840 and violations to 1-888-853-1964.