Chester the Molting Monk Seal

  • Hawaiian Monk Seal on Sandy Beach (Photo by Ann-Marie Kirk)

This story is about Chester. Chester is one of the
most endangered marine mammals in the US. He’s a Hawaiian
Monk Seal. This year, Chester decided his annual molt will
take place on a popular beach. Anne Keala Kelly


This story is about Chester. Chester is one of the
most endangered marine mammals in the US. He’s a Hawaiian
Monk Seal. This year, Chester decided his annual molt will
take place on a popular beach. Anne Keala Kelly

Chester is among only 1200 Hawaiian Monk Seals alive today. Most of them live in the
Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

They’re called Monk Seals because they’re solitary animals.
They prefer their own company to socializing with each other, especially during a
molt. Molting is a process that renders them weak and vulnerable.

“This animal is on the beach because it is going through a huge physiological change
right now.”

That’s David Schofield. He’s the marine mammal response coordinator in Honolulu for
NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s shedding all of its skin and fur in a relatively short period of time, keeping
his behavior very minimal. So he is actually not getting into the water, he is not
swimming; he is not expending a lot of energy.”

He says Chester has
chosen to molt on Kailua, an East Oahu beach that attracts thousands of visitors. It’s not a very safe place for a defenseless seal. Because of budget cuts, NOAA relies almost
completely on volunteers to help protect seals when they come on shore. They keep
curious people and their pets away from Chester.

Chester is known here. He’s been seen on a number of Oahu beaches over the years.
Usually he stays along isolated stretches. But he’s never been seen on the busy east side. In
fact, he is the first Monk Seal anyone recalls seeing on Kailua Beach.

DB Dunlap coordinates volunteers for NOAA. He says this is not the first time he’s seen

“I met Chester in 2002. And he was emaciated and skinny, I didn’t think he was gonna
make it through the day he was so pathetic looking. Now I realize that he had just
finished a molt, just exactly like he’s doing here and during that process they lose a lot of

The molt takes a while. About two weeks into his molt, Chester went missing. He’d rolled into the water. He
probably went into the ocean to eat. A couple of hours later he was back on the beach
about half a mile farther down. The volunteers quickly reassembled the yellow crime
scene tape around him fifteen feet in each direction.

Now, going into day 19, he appears even more lethargic. And… he smells bad if you’re
downwind. Half of his fur is hanging in dying patches on his now loose skin. David
Schofield, with NOAA, describes where Chester is in his molt.

“His belly and his face are pretty much done. That nice silvery coat is the new fur and
the brown stuff on the back is the old molt. So we’re saying right now he’s at about the
50% mark.”

One of the volunteers watching over Chester is a Hawaiian man named Eric Poohina. He
says though the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian
creation chant, native Hawaiians have spiritual ties to seals like Chester. Poohina refers to him as Kalaheo.

“I’m not naming him, I’m just referring to him as a Kalaheo, a Kalaheo is a verb, it’s not a
noun. Kalaheo is a proclamation, a urgent global proclamation. That animal is doomed.”

As Poohina explains the Hawaiian cultural relationship to this animal, he’s also
expressing the frustration many feel over political and economic values that have brought
the Monk Seal to the brink of extinction.

In the main Hawaiian Islands, military and real estate interests have over-developed the
coastline. They’ve been taking over the seal’s habitat. And in the Northwest Hawaiian
Islands where most of the seals live, young seals become easily entangled in fishing
industry debris. The young seals often drown. And, military maneuvers disrupt normal
breeding and nursing of healthy pups.

Schofield: “If this population is gonna recover, it’s gonna take all of us. We need 2900
of them for 20-years to get them off the endangered species list.”


Volunteer Eric Poohina is chanting about the sacredness of Chester’s ordeal. 26-days after
he started, Chester has finished his molt. It’s a process that has remained virtually
unchanged in his species’ genetic code for more than 15 million years. Imagine, once a
year, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, nature demands that you just have to
stop and let it all go.

Poohina: “What the chant means is we acknowledging the laws of the universe, yeah.”

For The Environment Report, I’m Anne Keala Kelly.

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