Hawaii's governor has issued a warning to visitors, advising them to stay away from monk seals after two tourists were reportedly fined this week when a video showing them touching the endangered mammals went viral.

In a Twitter post, Govenor David Ige said anyone caught disturbing or touching the seals would "will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

He added: "I want to be clear that this behavior is absolutely unacceptable. Visitors to our islands — you’re asked to respect our people, culture, and laws protecting endangered species that are found nowhere else in the world."

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Videos posted to the social media platform TikTok this week show visitors touching monk seals on a beach in Kauai, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to investigate the matter, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports. It it understood that the visitors have been fined.

Hawaiian monk seals are classified as a critically endangered species and currently about 1400 individuals remain in the wild. They can become easily distressed when approached by humans who want a closer look, or who attempt to feed or touch them. Mothers and pups are especially vulnerable during the nursing period and can easily become separated from each other when they become stressed by human or dog interactions.

Read more: 4 ways Hawaii is coping with a tourist influx as COVID-19 restrictions lift

Endangered Hawaiian Monk seal resting on Shipwreck Beach on Kauai
A sign warning visitors not to approach Hawaiian monk seals on the beach ©Joel Carillet/Getty Images

Hawaii can impose a fine of up to $50,000 on anyone who harms a monk seal. It's also a felony under state law to harass, harm or kill any endangered or threatened species.

But that's not to say you can't enjoy monk seals when visiting Hawaii. Speaking to Lonely Planet, Dr Sophie Whoriskey, monk seal conservation veterinarian at The Marine Mammal Center, said that the public can play an important role in the conservation of the endangered species by following a few simple rules:

  • Keep A Safe Distance: Whether on the water viewing marine life or walking with your pet on the state’s pristine beaches, a great wildlife viewing experience starts with keeping your distance and keeping pets on leash.
  • Use Your Zoom: It’s okay to take photos and admire resting monk seals, but if you’re not using your zoom or they’re reacting to you, you are too close. Disturbing resting monk seals prevents them from getting the critical rest needed between feeding trips and caring for their young. No 'SEAL-FIES' please!
  • Call or Text Us. Report monk seal sightings to The Marine Mammal Center’s Hawai‘i Island response team at its 24-hour hotline: 808-987-0765. Report all monk seal sightings, injuries, and strandings to NOAA’s statewide toll-free hotline at 1-888-256-9840.
Mediterranean monk seal
The public can help with monk seal conservation efforts ©Getty Images/iStockphoto

"As travelers return in greater numbers with easing pandemic restrictions, it is critical they follow posted signage about safe wildlife viewing habits to protect themselves, their pets and Hawaiian monk seals," Dr Whoriskey added.

Approximately 30% of Hawaiian monk seals are alive today because of conservation efforts from NOAA and partners like The Marine Mammal Center. The center opened its hospital in Kailua-Kona in 2014, and since then it has rehabilitated and released 35 Hawaiian monk seals—most of which have been rescued from and returned to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

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