Swimmer's dangerous encounter with Hawaiian monk seal and pup caught on camera

·5 min read

A woman is recovering from her injuries after being attacked by an endangered Hawaiian monk seal with a young pup at a Honolulu beach over the weekend, officials said.

The dangerous encounter occurred on Sunday morning at around 8:30 a.m. local time on Kaimana Beach in southern Honolulu's Waikiki neighborhood, where the mother seal known as Rocky recently gave birth. Rocky was visibly agitated and distressed that morning after her baby went out of sight and apparently swam into the dilapidated former swimming pool of the nearby Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial, according to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Lifeguards were not in their tower yet as 10 swimmers went into the water at Kaimana Beach, with no seals visible on the beach or in the ocean. One of the swimmers -- an unnamed 60-year-old elementary school teacher from California -- was near the natatorium, about 150 feet off shore, while her husband was watching and videotaping from their 12th-floor condominium. The video, which was provided to officials, shows the woman swimming as Rocky and her pup appear to be returning to the beach. Instead, the seals go back into the water and begin swimming toward the woman. The attack happens about 30 seconds later, according to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, which interviewed the couple and eyewitnesses.

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PHOTO: A Hawaiian monk seal and her young pup swim in the water off Kaimana Beach, prior to the incident with the swimmer in the Waikiki neighborhood of Honolulu, Hawaii, July 24, 2022. (Markus Faigle)
PHOTO: A Hawaiian monk seal and her young pup swim in the water off Kaimana Beach, prior to the incident with the swimmer in the Waikiki neighborhood of Honolulu, Hawaii, July 24, 2022. (Markus Faigle)

"My wife had a swim cap on and her head was in the water when both seals appeared. She could not hear 50 or so people on the beach screaming for swimmers to get out of the water. She then stands up and hears the people screaming and waving at her. She starts swimming away from the seals," the woman's husband was quoted as telling officials. "I'm thinking she’s going to die, by the time I get down to the beach. When I got there, three rescuers, including one in an outrigger canoe, were bringing her to shore, while the seals were swimming toward them again.

"We’ve been in Hawaii for three weeks and saw the pup at Kaimana immediately after it was born," he added. "We've read all the safe viewing signs and abide by them. These seals swam up behind her and she was not aware of them. In addition to her state of agitation from being separated from her pup, I believe all of the commotion on the beach likely added to her frustration."

The woman suffered lacerations to her face, back and arm. She described the incident as a terrifying experience, telling officials: "Neither of us could sleep last night. Every time I closed my eyes, I was seeing the mother seal's mouth.”

"I'm a teacher and I care a lot about the environment and wildlife," she was also quoted as saying. "I teach conservation to my students. I've collected discarded fishing hooks and brought them to shore and three years ago, I saw a sea turtle entangled in fishing line and reported it."

Her husband added: "There is no one to blame here. All my wife did was go swimming and she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

PHOTO: A swimmer had a dangerous encounter with a Hawaiian monk seal and her young pup, in the water off Kaimana Beach, in the Waikiki neighborhood of Honolulu, Hawaii, July 24, 2022. (Markus Faigle)
PHOTO: A swimmer had a dangerous encounter with a Hawaiian monk seal and her young pup, in the water off Kaimana Beach, in the Waikiki neighborhood of Honolulu, Hawaii, July 24, 2022. (Markus Faigle)

Honolulu resident Markus Faigle also witnessed Sunday's incident and captured it on video.

"For me, this is a mother in great distress who is protecting her pup and she perceived an intruder, and she tried to deal with this intruder by going there and defending her young," Faigle told ABC News during an interview that aired Tuesday on "Good Morning America."

"I have never in my life seen something like that, and my heart goes out to this poor woman," he added. "It is a very unfortunate event that this happened, but monk seals are wild animals."

A state investigation found the woman "did nothing to provoke the incident and was not even aware the seals were in the water," the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources said in a statement Monday

The Hawaiian monk seal, one of the most endangered seal species in the world, is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and is protected under state law as well as the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. There are less than 1,600 estimated to be remaining in the wild -- all in the Hawaiian archipelago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Under state and federal laws, it is a felony to intentionally touch, harass, capture, injure or kill a Hawaiian monk seal. Penalties can include up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

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PHOTO: Endangered Hawaiian monk seal 'Rocky' lies on the sand with her newborn pup after giving birth, on the island of Oahu in Honolulu, Hawaii, July 9, 2022. (Erik Kabik Photography/ MediaPunch /IPX via AP)
PHOTO: Endangered Hawaiian monk seal 'Rocky' lies on the sand with her newborn pup after giving birth, on the island of Oahu in Honolulu, Hawaii, July 9, 2022. (Erik Kabik Photography/ MediaPunch /IPX via AP)

Rocky's latest pup was born about two weeks ago on Kaimana Beach, according to Hawaii Marine Animal Response, a Kailua-based nonprofit conservation organization that helps monitor Hawaii's endangered and threatened marine species. Since then, the group along with NOAA Fisheries have been monitoring the pair and urging people to stay away. The shoreline where the seals live is roped off and signs warn beachgoers of the dangers of getting too close.

While Hawaiian monk seals are not typically aggressive, nursing mothers can become protective of the pups and have inflicted serious injuries to nearby swimmers.

"Although there is no specific regulation regarding how close one can approach a Hawaiian monk seal, we recommend keeping a minimum distance of 150 feet from mother monk seals and their pups," Hawaii Marine Animal Response said in a statement Monday. "In addition, Hawaii has many beautiful beaches to swim at, quite a few just a short distance from Kaimana Beach -- so we strongly recommend swimming at any of these other beaches during the next few weeks while mom and pup are on the beach."

ABC News' Marilyn Heck, Michelle Mendez and Lisa Sivertsen contributed to this report.

Swimmer's dangerous encounter with Hawaiian monk seal and pup caught on camera originally appeared on abcnews.go.com