Night divers off Hawaii's Kona coast last weekend marveled not only at the giant mantas they had planned on viewing, but also at a critically endangered monk seal that interacted with the mantas and the divers for two nights.
It was a magical experience from a purely aesthetic standpoint, given the gracefulness of the mantas as they soared in and out of the lights, feeding on plankton, and the surprise appearance of an agile and curious seal.
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But it was remarkable also because Hawaiian monk seals are critically endangered, numbering only 1,100. They’re the most endangered mammal in the United States, and one of the rarest mammals in the world.
Most inhabit remote unpopulated islands northwest of the main islands, while only three are known to frequent Big Island waters, including a lone female: the interloper seen in the footage, Waimanu--who is pregnant!
The "never-before-seen" footage was captured by Manta Ray Advocates Hawaii photographers Martina Wing, Ryan Leinbach, and Adam Fram.
Manta Ray Advocates Hawaii conducts night dives off Kona at one of only a few global locations that predictably attract the gentle giants, which forage beneath the lights and create a surreal experience for scuba divers and snorkelers.
The group posted the footage to its Facebook page Monday night, inspiring viewers to share it on their pages and chime in with comments.
Wrote a woman named Renata, "Incredibly awesome, breathtaking images. Being the only female one on the Big Island, she must be a lonely seal without any girlfriends and about to give birth! Maybe she will come back with a pup?"
Added a commenter named Whitney: "This made me cry like a baby. Such an incredible thing to see. I can't even imagine what it was like to see it in person!"
Many were curious about the lettering on the seal. It was painted by researchers, who catalog and monitor Hawaiian monk seals throughout the islands.
According to NOAA, Hawaiian monk seals can weigh nearly 500 pounds and measure about 7 feet. They are one of only two monk-seal species, the other being the Mediterranean monk seal. A third, the Caribbean monk seal, is extinct.
Hawaiian monk were hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 19th century, and unfortunately they're still teetering on the brink, threatened by many factors, including changes in food distribution (mainly an issue for pups), entanglement in fishing gear, and human interactions on main island beaches, where they haul out.
Researchers are hopeful that Waimanu’s pup will be healthy and live long enough to add to the population.
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