They are ancient. The Hawaiian monk seal first appeared in the oceans somewhere around 11 million years ago, and it has changed little since then. It is the oldest species of seal on the planet, and it is on the cusp of disappearing forever.
It has become a sadly typical story: a species that has existed on this planet millions of years longer than humans is harmed by our very presence. Hawaiian monk seals were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 1800s and 1900s -- they were clubbed by whalers and seal hunters for meat, oil and skin in the 1800s and U.S. military forces stationed on Midway and Laysan hunted them during World War II -- and now there are only around 1,100 individuals. They are thus one of the most rare marine mammal species in the world.
But even today when the species is protected from hunting, it is our mere presence on the beaches where they rest that can do harm. Smart, sensitive, and curious, these seals need space, and the rules set for the beaches on Midway Atoll have proven what a difference a little distance can make.