Īlio-holo-i-ka-uaua – Hawaiian Monk Seal

Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:

Īlio-holo-i-ka-uaua, or the Hawaiian Monk Seal, are found exclusively on the Hawaiian archipelago and feed primarily on small fish, squid, octopi, and crustaceans. Skilled hunters and divers, ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua feed at depths of 1,000ft and lower and are able to hold their breath for up to 20 minutes at a time. Despite spending most of their time out at sea, Hawaiian Monk Seals are often seen sleeping on the beach, digesting their food and resting from long hunts. They can grow up to 8 feet long, weigh 600 lbs, and usually hunt alone. Although pups are born black, adult skins are grey and brownish, and they molt these skins each year. Hawain Monk Seals get their English name from the large folds of skin around their faces and the Hawaiian name, ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua, translates to “dog that runs in rough water.” Although ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua are mostly found in the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, they are becoming more common around the waters of Kauai in areas seldom frequented by humans. Young Monk Seals are eaten by large sharks, such as the Galapagos and Tiger Sharks which are abundant in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which may be why the Monk Seals seem to be migrating back to the main Hawaiian Islands. Having been hunted to the brink of extinction, they are one of the most endangered seal species in the world with approximately 1,000 individuals left, and are now protected by the Endangered Species Act. Although many conservation efforts are helping to protect Hawaiian Monk Seals, these animals are still threatened by fishing, entanglement in marine debris, climate change, and starvation.

Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:


Common belief has held that the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, did not feature the Monk Seal, but recent studies have proposed that the term ‘ioleholoikauaua, or “rat running beside the wave,” refers to the Monk Seal. Indeed, there are multiple words, from old newspapers, chants, and songs, that may refer to the Monk Seal. Although Īlio-holo-i-ka-uaua, translating to “dog running in the rough seas,” is the most common today, other words are ‘īlioholoikauaua-a-Lono, “dog running towards the voice of Lono,” and ‘īliopi‘i, translating to “seal.” In the Kumulipo, ‘ioleholoikauaua is featured in line 554 and 555. Although translated as ‘rat,’ it may refer to a different animal. Do you think it’s referring to a Monk Seal?

He ‘iole ko uka, he ‘iole ko kai
A rat in the upland, a rat by the sea
He ‘iole holo i ka uaua
A rat running beside the wave


The presence and role of the endangered Monk Seal in traditional Hawaiian culture is intensely debated, due to its lack of references in chants, songs, and traditional stories. Some argue that the Monk Seal has never lived in Hawaii, while some believe that the first Hawaiian settlers killed off most of the Monk Seals on the main Hawaiian islands in the 13th Century. 

Certain Hawaiian language newspapers from the 18th and 19th century provide some evidence that Monk Seals were occasionally harvested, eaten, or used in religious ceremonies, but it is not clear how often. A group of researchers from Oahu have created a map showing the places around the main Hawaiian Islands with archaeological evidence and place name sites relating to the Monk Seal. 

Although they play a culturally debated role, Monk Seals are endangered and deserve help to stay alive. Additionally, it is likely that the Hawaiian Monk Seal lived on the Hawaiian islands long before humans arrived. As one kupuna (elder) neatly sums up in an interview, “whether they are hānaiʻ [adopted] or hānauʻ [born of, as in a son or daughter], monk seals are part of the ocean and we, humans, have an obligation to protect them.” (Kittenger)