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You are here: /main/research/NOWRAMP 2002/journals/language of the sea/


Ship Logs

The Language of the Sea
Posted By NOWRAMP Staff
Underwater Photography by Jim Watt
September 14, 2002

Gardner Pinnacles at sunset.We've been running through a squall filled night a hundred and seventeen miles west from French Frigate Shoals. The morning sky has a soft, pastel look to it. The colors on the clouds give the impression of baby's clothes strewn about an indigo room. The sun is awake but seems far away and can't quite touch the sky with its fire. There is a softness to the sea as well, which often happens after a squall. So in this wild place the gentle soul of the morning greets us kindly. In the distance Gardner Pinnacles raises out of the water, white dung glowing like the tip of a snow covered Himalayan peak.

Gardner Pinnacles is the least visited island in the Leewards principally because there is no safe anchorage. Basically, it is two rocks standing one hundred and seventy feet high and two hundred yards long. Not much of an island. It does have an underwater shelf that is quite shallow and extends five miles in all directions from the island, save for the northwest where it stretches out into the Pacific for ten miles. In the early 1960's the U.S. Military dynamited the top of the island so it could land a helicopter. Why they wanted to land a helicopter in this remote place with little anchorage was never explained.

Monk seal at Gardner Pinnacles.As has become the custom of the Expedition's Documentation team, I am cast first into the water to do a quick recon of a likely looking area to find the best site for the photography and video. I take this opportunity to see the face of the underwater world before it is sullied with the eyes of others. I don't swim a hundred yards before a large monk seal rises from the mid-water column to check me out. It swims toward me in a friendly fashion, but I swim away and quickly complete my recon mission trying hard not to violate the law by altering the behavior of a critically endangered species. The area shows big ulua, I count seven over forty pounds and two 'monsters' at close to a hundred pounds. An eagle ray swims by, and then I hit a 'dead spot' with little activity, thus declaring the early sightings as the place to 'jump.'

While the others are gearing up I drift back to where I last saw the ulua. They have disappeared but the monk seal spies me resting on the surface and swims over to investigate. I stop swimming and float stilled on the surface, the seal with its large eyes and scarred face takes me in. Upon eye contact it comes right up to me like a friendly dog. I know that this highly endangered animal is protected and off limits to all, and I don't quite know what to do. Hawai`i has only two species of land mammals alive today that arrived under their own power. The Hawaiian Hoary Bat, whom I've never met, who flew in from North America, and the Hawaiian Monk Seal who's ancestors existed some fifteen million years ago and likely originated in the Atlantic Ocean. Of all the pinnipeds (i.e., seals, sea lions, elephant seals) Monk Seals have the most ancient lineage. They are characterized as a "living fossil" (something I have been accused of from time to time), because some of its anatomical, physiological, or behaviorioral characteristics have scarcely changed over millennium. They are isolationists, unlike their brethren found in cooler waters north and south of the Hawaiian Islands. Thus, with no predators other than very large sharks, they have no real defensive strategies to protect themselves. Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean Monk Seals on his second voyage to the New World. Apparently, he killed his fair share near the island of Haiti. Five hundred years later that species is extinct.

The Hawaiian Monk Seal has been the subject of hunting expeditions since the early nineteenth century. In 1824 the sealing brig Aiona was thought to have killed the last seal. However under the protection in the Bird Reservation, enforced by U. S. Navy patrols, the seals slowly recovered. Over the years the population has been seesawing to the point where the population has stabilized to around 1,350 seals.

Needless to say the Hawaiian Monk Seal lives an extremely fragile existence. And I for one am in complete accordance with the rules laid down by the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibiting harassment or any other form of action causing harm to the seals. This is seal territory and has been for a lot longer than man found his way into these remote islands.

Monk seal on bottom.My encounter with the seal is not finished. Though I make no move towards the seal I also do not swim away, I can't, I am enchanted by its sweet face and gentle nature. It does a loop beneath me, and then waits in the water ten feet away. The language of the sea is in the body movements of its inhabitants, it wants to communicate. But I resist the temptation. I understand that my encounter with the seal is only an isolated incident, but many isolated incidents soon become harassment and the seal may quickly become habituated to human contact. Once wild animals become used to humans they often lose their wild character and get into situations with humans that may force their relocation, or worse, destruction.
I don't want that fate to begin with me. Forcing myself to pull myself back into the zodiac, I hang in the water for one final glance. Seeming to sense my retreat, the seal quickly bends its flexible toward me then it drifts up and nudges my arm with its highly sensitive whiskers. It senses the neoprene rubber of my wet suit and seemingly satisfied that such a skin does not belong in its world, turns and swims away. Leaving me with the moment of deep gratefulness that such creatures still exist and we must do everything in our collective powers to keep it so.

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