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Parting Shot - Up Close & Personal With A Hawaiian Monk Seal

By Jeremy Cuff/

The island of Niihau is located 17 miles southwest of Kauai, and is often referred to as Hawaii’s “forbidden island”. It’s been largely off limits to visitors since 1864, when Elizabeth Sinclair purchased the island from King Kamehameha V.

Niihau has remained in the ownership of her descendants (the Robinsons), who’ve attempted to preserve the Hawaiian culture and language among the small population by preventing any influx of settlers from the outside world.

As the waters around Niihau aren’t privately owned, anyone can visit on a boat provided they don’t actually land. To get out there, you must base yourself on Kauai, and be prepared for early starts and a possibly rough crossing of the Kaulakahi Channel of 1.5 to 2 hours outbound and up to 2.5 hours on the return leg. Most of the dive sites are centred around Lehua Rock, a spectacular semi-submerged crater located off Niihau’s north east.

We knew from our research that we’d have “a chance” of Hawaiian Monk Seal encounters in these waters and at best we hoped for a swift “fly past”. However, our expectations were raised during the dive briefing for Vertical Awareness (which as the name suggests, is a vertigo inducing wall dive) when the dive guides explained how to behave around the seals.

Although sometimes curious of divers, Hawaiian Monk Seals are often skittish and wary, and are more likely to stick around if divers don’t swim directly at them. Instead, a slower and more “meandering” approach tends to be more successful and if you’re able to get close, it’s a good idea to ensure that the seal has enough space to make an exit. Sporadic rather than constant eye contact were also considered good advice as it’s thought that the seals finds it less threatening.

And so, we were treated to some amazing Hawaiian Monk Seal encounters, most memorably at Vertical Awareness where we were able to approach to within touching distance of one individual whilst it rested on the rocky plateau close to the wall.

Every few minutes, the seal would surface for air and return to the same spot. In this image, the seal appears to be “laughing” at Scott, one of the dive guides. Sometimes, the “monk” (as some locals call them) would vocalize with a throaty growl which is thought be territorial before relaxing to check out its own reflection in my dome port as I tentatively edged closer. Even the crew considered our encounter very special.

The “forbidden island” of Niihau is the “wild frontier” of diving in the Hawaiian Islands and rewards the visitor with some spectacular underwater experiences. It’s truly world class and full of photographic potential. And it’s probably the best place to get encounters with one of world’s most endangered marine mammals, the Hawaiian Monk Seal.

Image taken using Nikon D200/Subal housing combination with a 10.5mm fisheye and Subtronic strobe. Settings were 1/40th, f8 and ISO100. Photograph taken on 6th August 2008.

Spring 2009

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