Molting Monk Seals: Brand new skin once a year!

Updated: Jun 15

Hawaiian monk seals undergo what is called a “catastrophic molt” about once a year. During this process the seals shed all their fur and the top layer of their skin. Hawaiian monk seals will often accumulate algae growth, along with other organic materials, on their fur throughout the year. By the time the seal molts it will often look green and dirty.

The actual molting process takes one to two weeks and is not particularly pleasant for the seal. The monk seal will typically haul out on a beach at the start of the molt and will stay there until the molt is complete. It does not go in the ocean much during the process and therefore does not eat much.

NOAA recommends staying at least 50’ from Hawaiian monk seals on the beach under normal circumstances and 150’ when a seal has a pup. It does not mention a specific distance for molting seals, but we recommend staying more than 50’ if possible as the seal is more sensitive and may be more likely to be disturbed by human presence.

As the seal molts pieces of its skin and fur begin to fall off. Beach goers have asked us if the seal is dead and decaying, and when you look at the attached pictures you will see why they think that! Remember it is illegal to collect the fur so just let it blow back into the ocean if you witness a molt in progress. Our experience is that the seals are more irritable while molting. It is probably pretty uncomfortable as evidenced by their behavior with lots of rolling around, scratching and trying to get comfortable.

When the molt is over the seal has a shiny new silver coat and looks brand new! If humans had the option of suffering a couple of weeks a year to shed their old skin, ending up with a brand-new younger look in the end, I wonder how many would choose to molt themselves!

In the attached pictures you will see a Hawaiian monk seal on Maui that we found earlier this year in the earliest stages of molting on a remote beach (we reported the sighting to the Maui seal hotline at 808-292-2372). In the first picture, where she looks more brownish, you will see small holes in her coat where she lost some fur. In the later pictures (which are at a different beach because she was chased back in the water by someone getting too close to her!) you will see her about 70% molted with large sliver areas as well as large patches of skin and fur still in the process of falling off! She ultimately completed her molt and looks like a new seal!

See our Monk Seal and Hawaii Fine Art collections. A portion of all sales goes to benefit endangered Hawaiian monk seals.

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