For forty-three days this past summer, thousands of people— whether lined up behind protective barriers on a popular beach at the foot of Diamond Head or glued to their internet screen of choice—were captivated by an extraordinary mammalian love story: the saga of Rocky the Hawaiian monk seal and her pup Kaimana.
Kaimana’s birth in the wee hours of June 29 was the first time on record that one of the endangered native seals had been born so close to Waikīkī—even Rocky herself had delivered her previous nine offspring on remote Kaua‘i shores—and the adorable pup quickly drew admiring crowds. Then the spectacle went into viral overdrive when the local news site Honolulu Civil Beat began running a live video stream of the seals, thanks to a willing resident of an apartment building overlooking the beach who did a remarkable job of keeping a webcam trained on mother and baby as they frolicked side by side in the water and snuggled together for long snoozes on the sand.
From the start, the saga of Rocky and Kaimana, named for the beach where she was born, was ready-made for internet consumption. To begin with, there were the monk seals’ irresistible looks, with their huge Margaret Keane eyes. Add to that their heart-melting inseparability during the nursing period. But the biggest kicker was the built-in dramatic climax: Monk seal moms inevitably wean their pups by just abruptly taking off one day and leaving the youngster all on its own. Perfectly normal behavior for them, of course, but for us Homo sapiens a melodrama guaranteed to push every abandonment button we’ve got.
By the time it was over, the Rocky and Kaimana show garnered close to three million hits online. Viewer metrics skewed toward middle-aged women, according to Civil Beat Engagement Editor Anthony Quintano. “People were just in awe of how well Rocky watched over Kaimana,” he says, “and I think a lot of the moms out there could really relate.” The stream’s copious user comments offered a lively display of anthropomorphism—the human tendency to project our own traits onto other species—punctuated with gobs of heart emojis. Even the seal scientists got swept up in the unaccustomed media glare, giving regular online “pupdates” live from the beach and throwing a gender-reveal party complete with pink-inside cake.
As with any good telenovela, the Rocky-Kaimana story had its share of twists and turns, like when Rocky charged fiercely at another seal who stopped by the beach and got too close, or Kaimana’s playdate with a random pair of slippers. (“Shoe shopping on the beach, lol!” quipped one online admirer. “A girl wants what a girl wants.”) There was even high drama when Kaimana found a way to sneak into the dilapidated Natatorium pool next door, leaving Rocky frantically searching for her lost pup until the little rascal was scooped up by rescuers and brought back to mama.
As the inevitable moment approached when Rocky was due to depart, anxiety reached fever pitch. “Is this IT?!?” the cyberfans fretted each time Rocky headed for the water. “Noooo … I can’t watch!” And then on August 11 it happened. After a lazy morning the pair went out for an early afternoon swim, and only Kaimana came back. “Sad tears and happy tears are now flowing,” one web regular reported. “Keep them both safe and healthy.” After lolling in the shoreline wavelets for a long stretch, Kaimana eventually shimmied up the beach and curled against a Rocky-surrogate palm tree to spend a fidgety first night alone.
The next morning, a seal team swooped in and moved her to an undisclosed beach away from human hazards, where—apart from an encounter with an old fishing hook that she was able to get out of her mouth herself—she’s been growing healthily into her own. And Rocky has returned to empty-nest vigor, resuming her habitual visits to Waikīkī. As for the rest of us, we’ve gone back to our regular routines, too, released from the compulsion to continually check in on “our girls.” But we’ll always have those amazing forty-three days. “Such a beautiful thing,” one fellow webcast junkie posted on our behalf. “I’m so glad we saw it together.” HH