Maui News

Witness to Aftermath of Mother Seal Attack Describes Harrowing Injuries to Snorkeler

May 20, 2021, 12:39 PM HST
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Mother seal and pup. PC: File courtesy Hawaiʻi DLNR.

A man who witnessed the aftermath of a mother seal attack on a snorkeler 12 years ago, still has the incident etched in his memory.

On Dec. 22, 2009, Earl Miyamoto was on “pup watch,” keeping a close eye on a mother Hawaiian monk seal and her newborn on a remote beach in the Poʻipū area of Kaua‘i. 

Late in the day, the retired staffer from the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources began getting calls from the Kaua‘i Police Department. “We had people watching the seals on both sides of a point that jutted into the ocean. I was on the side without a view of the pup and its mom. Late in the afternoon I got a call from the police that a mom and pup pair had just attacked a swimmer.” 

Miyamoto put his military emergency medical training into play, doing an assessment of the victim, a 28-year-old woman from Washington state. “She was bleeding profusely from her nose and mouth, down her arm, and on her buttocks,” Miyamoto said. “She kept saying ‘my hand, my hand, my hand.'”

State officials with the Department of Land and Natural Resources say that when the mother seal attacked the woman, in what a witness described as a “lunge out of the water,” the animal grabbed her by the face. The woman’s face mask and snorkel, in Miyamoto’s opinion, saved her life. There were bite marks under her chin, and later, after reporting persistent headaches, it was discovered her skull was fractured just above the eyes. 

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The day following the incident Miyamoto visited the woman in the hospital. While there were only puncture wounds on the woman’s hand, she told him she could hear bones cracking when she reached up to try and free her face from the seal’s mouth. Doctors ended up pinning every single bone in her hand; broken by the massive force of the seal’s jaw.

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A pup watch volunteer who witnessed the attack told Miyamoto that the entire episode lasted no more than 30 seconds and then the mom rejoined her pup, and they swam back to the beach. 

Miyamoto is recounting his story to try and convince swimmers, snorkelers, and paddlers to stay out of the ocean fronting O‘ahu’s Kaimana beach, where currently a mother seal named Kaiwi and her three-week old offspring are resting, in full view of hundreds of daily beach goers. 

Volunteers and staff from Hawai‘i Marine Animal Response (HMAR) are at the beach during daylight hours to provide information about seals and their behaviors. Lifeguards from the City and County of Honolulu’s Ocean Safety Division are making repeated loudspeaker announcements each day when the seals go into the water for one of their many exploratory swims. 

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David Schofield, NOAA Fisheries Regional Marine Mammal Response Coordinator, is one of the county, state, and federal authorities who worry, that due to the large number of people enjoying the water off Kaimana Beach, someone is likely to get attacked. 

“Monk seals are docile on land, but don’t let that fool you. In the ocean they are fast and strong, and in the case of a mother in the process of weaning a pup, she is very protective … anyone who is considered a threat could be attacked and seriously hurt,” Schofield explained. 

Miyamoto said volunteers talked to the woman before she swam out and warned her of the mother seal and pup nearby. Just like what is happening at Kaimana Beach 12-years later, she had observed the pair resting on the beach and figured they were not a particular threat. 

“She doesn’t blame the monk seal…like any wild animal it was simply protecting her pup,” Miyamoto added. When asked if he thinks it’s foolish for people to go into the ocean anywhere near a seal mom and pup he said, “The ocean is the seals’ home. I don’t care how strong a swimmer you are, if that seal decides you are a threat, you have no chance of escaping. My advice has always been, if there is a mom and a pup, don’t go in the water. It’s just not worth it.” 

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