'Do not disturb' the monk seals, warn Hawaiian signs. Alabama tourist learns they mean it.
Prominent warning signs litter the pristine white sand beaches of Kauai, Hawaii.
"Do not disturb." "Please do not approach."
The words are also usually accompanied by visual aids: Symbols of a person, a red circle with a slash through it (the international sign for "no") and a seal.
The bright yellow signage is meant to keep curious beachgoers and tourists away from the Hawaiian monk seals - "one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world" - that are often seen lazing in the sand after coming ashore to rest and sleep.
But the numerous advisories failed to deter one Alabama man vacationing on the northern Hawaiian island last year, who has now been fined $1,500 for touching a Hawaiian monk seal and harassing a sea turtle during his visit, according to a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Monk seals and sea turtles are considered "part of the identity of the islands and hold a special place in the minds and hearts of the people of Hawaii," according to NOAA. The seals are native to Hawaii and not found anywhere else in the world.
NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement in Hawaii became aware of the man's actions through posts shared on his Instagram account. Recently, NOAA said its officials have been monitoring social media in an effort to crack down on potential violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, under which both animals are protected.
"Violations are usually the result of things like tourists wanting to get a good, close picture with a seal or a thrill seeker trying to get a rush," said Adam Kurtz, a NOAA Fisheries wildlife management coordinator. "But it's really frustrating when you see people harass these animals."
On Instagram, the man's video includes the hashtag #monkseals, which is what tipped authorities off, according to NOAA Fisheries. Accompanied by the text "I touched a seal!!!!", the video shows the man creeping up on a sleeping seal at Poipu Beach at night and stroking the animal with his hand, the federal agency said. Startled, the seal turns toward the man - "its harasser," as described by marine officials - causing him to run away. As the man flees, a familiar NOAA sign telling visitors to keep their distance can be seen.
Upon further examination of the man's Instagram account, the NOAA officer found another "problematic" video. In this one, the man "aggressively pursued a sea turtle for an extended period" while snorkeling.
NOAA was able to track the man down using his social media accounts.
"The man was cooperative and, after the officer explained the relevant laws, the man understood that what he did was wrong," the NOAA report said. "He accepted responsibility for his actions and paid the $1,500 fine."
While it is recommended that both Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles be viewed from safe distances, the man touching the seal was "especially alarming," NOAA said, noting that there are only 1,400 left in the wild.
"Even if they are sleeping and seem harmless, Hawaiian monk seals are still wild animals and they can act unpredictably," Kurtz said. "The seal could have lunged at him."
According to NOAA guidelines, people should view monk seals from a distance of 50 feet.
In Hawaii, residents are fierce protectors of their island and its resources, said Hawaiian monk seal researcher Mark Sullivan, who wanted to remind people that "others are watching."
"Harassing wildlife is very unpopular nowadays, so when in doubt, just leave the animal be," Sullivan said.