7 min read

These Seals Keep Getting Eels Stuck Up Their Noses

No one knows exactly why it's happening 😮

When field biologists walked the beaches of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands looking for Hawaiian monk seals earlier this year, they did a double take. They were stunned to see a seal in a bit of a predicament — an eel was hanging out of her nose.

eel stuck in seal's nose
NOAA/Brittany Dolan, NOAA Permit #16632-02

“They were definitely surprised,” Jessica Bohlander, a research marine biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, told The Dodo about her colleagues' discovery. 

NOAA field biologist Brittany Dolan snapped the photo of the eel in a seal, and the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program posted her picture of the unanticipated encounter on its Facebook page last Monday — and it’s got the internet talking

Bohlander said after Dolan took the picture, she put down the camera so she and fellow NOAA field biologist Allie Northey could figure out how to get the eel out of the seal’s nose. 

The biologists live for months at a time in the French Frigate Shoals, the largest atoll of Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Their goal is to help increase the population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals. Only about 1,400 remain in the wild.

hawaiian monk seals noaa
NOAA, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Permit #16632-02

Though they’re highly trained on how to safely handle seals in distress, Dolan and Northey consulted their staff veterinarian before attempting an eel extraction. 

“The eel was dead,” Bohlander said. “They have to live in the water so once the seal surfaced, it died. The tricky part is, you want to make sure you remove the entire eel; if you don’t, it could cause more problems.” 

Dolan and Northey came up with a game plan: They snuck up behind the young seal, and one of the women restrained her while the other pulled out the eel. After about one minute of seal wrangling, the eel extraction was accomplished.

hawaiian monk seals noaa
Researchers observe a different seal being released into the wild after rehabilitation | NOAA, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Permit #16632-02

They released the seal back onto the beach and she’s doing just fine. 

Bohlander stresses these biologists take massive precautions. “You want to make sure the seal, and the people, stay safe,” she said. “You don’t want to restrict the seal’s breathing, and the animal is not going to like this. You don’t want to get bitten. We only have really experienced people do this.”

hawaiian monk seal noaa
NOAA, M. Sullivan, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Permit #16632-02

This is actually the fourth time in recent years NOAA teams have found an eel dangling out of a Hawaiian monk seal’s nose. How exactly it happens is a mystery. 

“It’s been a new phenomenon lately,” Bohlander said. “We speculate the seal ate the eel, and then sneezed, or regurgitated at the wrong time, and it got stuck.”

hawaiian monk seal noaa
NOAA/I. Nimz, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Permit #16632-02

There is one thing scientists do know: Eels stuck in seals’ snouts puts the seals’ lives at risk. “It restricts their breathing and their ability to dive,” Bohlander said. “When they dive they close their nostrils so they can feed. So it’s definitely something you want to deal with.”

hawaiian monk seal noaa
NOAA, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Permit #16632-02

But although the eel encounters are dangerous, they are not among the reasons why Hawaiian monk seals are on the endangered species list.

This video shows NOAA biologists racing to save Hawaiian monk seals entangled in nets, hurt from fishing hook injuries and stuck in garbage tossed in the ocean. 

hawaiian monk seal x ray
An X-ray of a young seal's throat after ingesting a fishing hook | NOAA, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Permit #16632-02

The scientists also help the species by vaccinating seals from viruses and bringing injured seals to rehabilitation centers.

hawaiian monk seal noaa
NOAA/Jessica Bohlander, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Permit #16632-02

Bohlander said there’s a lot people can do to help the seals. “Give the seals their space. Don’t run up to take selfies with them,” she said. “Keep the beaches clean. They’re really curious so they’ll interact with anything they see — fishing hooks, garbage and food.”

hawaiian monk seal
Teams removed this fishing hook from a Hawaiian monk seal | NOAA, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Permit #16632-02

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program said after years of work, the number of seals is starting to stabilize.

hawaiian monk seal
NOAA, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Permit #16632-02

“There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a positive trend. It shows these interventions are working. We are making a direct difference,” Bohlander said. “To do an intervention like this, release the seal back into the wild, and then spot them later, and learn they’re doing well, it’s so rewarding.”

hawaiian monk seal noaa
Hawaiian monk seal being released back into the wild after having a fishing hook removed | NOAA, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Permit #16632-02

If you see a seal in distress anywhere, don’t try to approach the animal yourself — you could get hurt and so could the seal. Most coastal communities have marine mammal rescue hotlines you can call, or the local police can direct you. 

Hawaiian Monk seal noaa
NOAA, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Permit #16632-02
If you’d like to help Hawaiian monk seals, you can donate to the Marine Mammal Center and Hawaii Marine Animal Response.