During winter months, humpback whales are a common sight on Napali Coast boat tours. // © 2015 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): Kauai monk seals are often spotted right on the beach. // © 2015 Tim Robinson
Monk seals and sea turtles snooze on the beach. Humpback whales breach right offshore. Laysan albatross swoop down from towering sea cliffs. While such natural marvels might sound unthinkable on the U.S. mainland, they’re practically everyday occurrences on Kauai.
In fact, it’s so easy to witness the island’s wildlife that visitors might assume local fauna are thriving. On the contrary, some of the island’s most intriguing animals are either rare or endangered. But thanks to dedicated organizations and eco-oriented tours, clients are learning about the best ways to enjoy Kauai’s wildlife — without disturbing it.
Creatures of the Sea
One of the island’s most critically endangered animals is the Hawaiian monk seal. Despite an increase in births in recent years, the estimated population on Kauai is only about 40 to 45, according to Kauai Monk Seal Watch Program (KMSWP).
Visitors can find out more about the sleek swimmers during weekly presentations by KMSWP. Held each Thursday morning at Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa in Poipu, the programs appeal to all ages, according to Tim Robinson, projects coordinator for KMSWP.
“One of the most frequent questions our attendees ask is, ‘Where can we see a monk seal?’” Robinson said. “Nothing is certain, because the seals haul out on the beach when they’re tired and need rest, which could be anywhere. But we can refer people to popular locations.”
When seals are basking on the sand, people should stay at least 150 feet away from them, said Robinson, who noted that harassment or disturbance of a Hawaiian monk seal can incur major fines and even imprisonment.
Clients must exercise equal caution when looking for Hawaiian green sea turtles, a threatened species that uses the island for nesting. While the number of turtles has been growing, visitors should appreciate them from afar both in the water and on the beach.
Perhaps Kauai’s biggest wildlife draws are the humpback whales that spend their winters mating and giving birth in Hawaii’s warm waters. All the boat companies that tour the island’s Napali Coast watch for these gentle giants. However, each year from December through March, Blue Dolphin Charters runs a two-hour adventure focused specifically on whale watching. On a 65-foot catamaran, passengers enjoy snacks and drinks while taking in thrilling views of humpbacks and the coast’s dramatic sea cliffs.
From shore, clients can catch sight of wild dolphins year-round in the waters off Kauai. To see them from the water, visitors might consider an excursion with Holo Holo Charters, which has earned national recognition for its dolphin conservation philosophy. The company allows clients to view dolphins in ways that don’t disrupt their natural behaviors, such as putting a boat’s engine in neutral if dolphins approach.
Bird lovers can have a field day looking for Kauai’s feathered beauties, from the endemic and indigenous to migratory and introduced species. Kokee State Park, an upland forest on the island’s northwest side, hosts native birds such as the apapane, iiwi and amakihi. Hawaii’s state bird, the endangered nene (Hawaiian goose), is increasingly easy to spot on the island.
Seabirds make their nests at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge (KPNWR), an exceptional bird-watching locale. From its perch atop north shore cliffs, clients get prime views of Laysan albatross, especially from December through May.
“Watching albatross fly 40 to 50 feet above the sea is an experience available almost nowhere else in the world,” said Hob Osterlund, founder of Kauai Albatross Network. “It’s a fabulous photography opportunity.”
This year, KPNWR has listed a record 172 albatross nests, Osterlund noted.
“Visitors can see nesting birds with binoculars — which can be borrowed for free — or through the spotting scopes on the refuge’s bluff,” Osterlund said.
Other winged wonders frequenting KPNWR include red-footed boobies, great frigatebirds and red-tailed tropic birds. Interpretive displays and dioramas enrich the visit.
No matter where animal lovers go on Kauai, they must treat the island’s wildlife with respect.
“Although humans sometimes want to touch or get close to the critters, this impulse is often damaging to them,” Osterlund said. “If you care about the animals, give them their space.”