The arrival of a new baby can stir up all sorts of emotions for new parents – pride, pleasure, sometimes worry and fear. But for a Hawaiian monk seal named Ua Malie, motherhood appears to have brought her nothing but pure joy.
Ua Malie (which means “peaceful rain” in Hawaiian) gave birth to her second pup last month on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii. Monk seal moms raise pups without the help of the father, so they usually have a strong relationship with their offspring. But amateur naturalist and photographer Nate Yuen, who’s been documenting the pair, says that Ua Malie has a particularly special relationship with this new pup. “The bond between Ua Mallie and this pup seems to be stronger and more affectionate than usual,” Yuen tells The Dodo. “The baby wants to keep kissing her mommy. Mommy keeps turning away, but the baby wants to keep kissing.”
When Ua Malie isn’t getting smooched by her baby, she spends a lot of her time feeding her newborn. (The pup’s gender hasn’t been determined yet, but Yuen suspects it’s a female.) Ua Malie will lie on her side so the pup can cuddle up to her and nurse. “Pups live off their mother’s milk,” Yuen explains. “Seal milk is almost the consistency of yogurt and high in fat. It’s packed with nutrients and enables pups to gain weight rapidly.”
Monk seal moms don’t eat the entire time they’re nursing, but simply live off the fat stores in their bodies until their babies have grown up. In just six or seven weeks, monk seal moms lose hundreds of pounds.
When photographing Ua Malie and her baby, Yuen stays about 100 feet away, which is the amount of distance recommended by the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP). HMSRP believes it’s important for monk seals not to get accustomed to humans, and they even advise people not to make eye contact with them. While following these guidelines, Yuen still managed to capture photographs and videos of Ua Malie and her baby snoozing on the beach, and Ua Malie giving her pup swimming and foraging lessons in the ocean.
“I hope they stay as wild and unaffected by humans as possible, so I hope they don’t know I’m there,” Yuen says. “Once they looked directly at me as I photographed them – I was looking into the LCD panel of my camera so I didn’t actually make eye contact. The mother had a smirk on her face – she looked happy. The baby had a look of surprise on its face.”
Besides being adorable, Hawaiian monk seals are a critically endangered species. In 2012, NOAA estimated that there were about 1,153 monk seals left in Hawaii. What’s threatening the Hawaiian monk seal? According to NOAA, food limitation, shark predation, habitat loss and male aggression all play a part. But derelict fishing gear – abandoned nets and longline fishing hooks – are the greatest threat to the seals. “Three of Ua Malie’s siblings died,” Yuen says. “In 2015 Ola Loa (Ua Malie’s younger sister) died after surgery complications to remove a large hook from her throat. In 2008 and 2006 respectively, Penelope and Hoku drowned after getting caught in fishing nets.”
But Ua Malie and her new baby fill Yuen with hope. “The bond between them is heartwarming and sweet,” Yuen says. “It makes me hopeful that the Hawaiian monk seals can be brought back from the brink of extinction.”
President Obama is currently working to expand the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a 139,797-square-mile region of the Pacific Ocean in Northwest Hawaii, and where the majority of Hawaiian Monk Seals live. Not only will expansion create the largest sanctuary for Hawaiian monk seals on the planet, but it will help save them from extinction. To support this project, you can sign this petition.
You can also check out more of Nate Yuen’s photographs on his Facebook page.
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