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Hawaiian monk seal finds new home at aquarium

AP News
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Posted: Dec 15, 2011 6:54 PM
Hawaiian monk seal finds new home at aquarium

A nearly blind Hawaiian monk seal found years ago trying to suckle a rock at a Kauai beach after his mother abandoned him is settling into his new home at the Waikiki Aquarium.

Hoailona, also known as KP2, has been poking his snout into the corners and edges of the outdoor pool as he explores the new environment he moved into this week.

"He's curious about everything that's around him," aquarium director Andy Rossiter said Thursday.

Hoailona is about 12 in human years. National Marine Fisheries Service officials first found him trying to suckle on a rock when he was just three days old.

A pup his mother abandoned the year before died and they decided to rescue KP2 so he wouldn't meet the same fate.

Humans raised Hoailona until he was old enough to be released into the wild, and then set him free on Molokai.

There, the seal gravitated to people and soon became famous for charming and playing with swimmers. But authorities had to take him away when he started holding people underwater. His eyesight was also found to be poor.

Hoailona has spent the past two years at a California research laboratory.

At the aquarium, Hoailona is joining Maka, a seal who has been at the aquarium for more than 25 years and who would be in his late 80s or 90s if he was human.

Rossiter said the pair is akin to a "grandpa and a rambunctious teenager."

Metal bars separate the two for now because Hoailona is just 200 pounds _ less than half the size of the 450-pound Maka _ and the young seal could get hurt if they were to fight.

Male monk seals tend to be territorial so it's a real risk.

Rossiter said the bars may be removed once Hoailona grows and the seals get used to each other.

Hoailona suffers from cataract problems that are aggravated by the sun, so the aquarium has also installed a white canopy over part of the exhibit space so he can take refuge in the shade.

The seal's vision is only 20 to 30 percent of normal strength. But his hearing is good, and he uses this and sensors on his whiskers to get around.

Veterinarians who examined the seal in California said the risks of operating on his eyes posed a greater risk than the inconvenience Hoailona is experiencing from his condition, Rossiter said.

It's not clear what caused Hoailona's eyesight to deteriorate. The formula he received as an infant may have lacked the nutrients he needed. Other theories put the blame on disease or genetics.

Hawaiian monk seals are a critically endangered species. There are only about 1,100 remaining in the wild, and their numbers are declining by 4 percent a year.

The aquarium hopes Hoailona will help the public learn about their plight.

"We like to think that he belongs to everybody, and that he will serve as an ambassador for his species to alert visitors to the plight of Hawaiian monk seals in the wild," Rossiter said.