From the NY Times Magazine
The Hawaiian monk seal has wiry whiskers and the deep, round eyes of an apologetic child. The animals will eat a variety of fish and shellfish, or turn over rocks for eel and octopus, then haul out on the beach and lie there most of the day, digesting. On the south side of Kauai one afternoon, I saw one sneeze in its sleep: its convex body shuddered, then spilled again over the sand the way a raw, boneless chicken breast will settle on a cutting board. The seals can grow to seven feet long and weigh 450 pounds. They are adorable, but also a little gross: the Zach Galifianakises of marine mammals.
Monk seals are easy targets. After the Polynesians landed in Hawaii, about 1,500 years ago, the animals mostly vanished, slaughtered for meat or oil or scared off by the settlers’ dogs. But the species quietly survived in the Leeward Islands, northwest of the main Hawaiian chain — a remote archipelago, including Laysan Island, Midway and French Frigate Shoals, which, for the most part, only Victorian guano barons and the military have seen fit to settle. There are now about 900 monk seals in the Leewards, and the population has been shrinking for 25 years, making the seal among the world’s most imperiled marine mammals. The monk seal was designated an endangered species in 1976. Around that time, however, a few monk seals began trekking back into the main Hawaiian Islands — “the mains” — and started having pups. These pioneers came on their own, oblivious to the sprawling federal project just getting under way to help them. Even now, recovering the species is projected to cost $378 million and take 54 years.