Meeting ‘The Seal Whisperer’

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - May 05, 2010
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An unknown author once wrote, “Those who can, do. Those can do more, volunteer.”

That’s D.B Dunlap. For nearly 10 years, Dunlap has given his time, energy and heart to the Hawaiian monk seal. His passion is so deep some call him the Seal Whisperer. From sunup to sundown, seven days a week, the monk seal volunteer willingly looks over his “children,” wherever they may be.

“Why do I do it? Because somebody has to and I want to,” he says with great pride.

Some swear the 30 or so animals that regularly haul onto Hawaii’s beaches know him. A few even believe Dunlap and the seals communicate with each other. Dunlap shrugs it off with a smile.

“No, not at all, although I want to believe that, there’s no indication that’s true,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t get any e-mails, letters or phone calls from them. Not yet.”

Dunlap’s passion and compassion for monk seals was unplanned. After retiring from the federal fire department, where he served for some 30 years, Dunlap quickly earned the reputation as one of Hawaii’s finest ocean photographers.

“I was the surf photographer dude until the day they worked their way into my life,” he recalls about an early morning photo shoot at Sandy Beach in 2001. “It was Good Friday and I was on the beach looking at angles, when all of a sudden a female monk seal with a big scar hauls out toward me.”

Dunlap says at the time he was vaguely aware of monk seals but “never spent time with one.” He called his wife Marilyn, who is a marine biologist, and asked her what to do. She told him to call a number to report the sighting and wait.

“But the cavalry never arrived, so I sat there with her,” he says. “For the next 26 days of the month she hauled out on the beach and I shot photo after photo, and that was the start. She came out on Good Friday, that’s why I called her Easter Seal.”

Since then Dunlap has taken thousands of photos of Hawaiian monk seals and knows the name of each one. But he says he has never seen that first monk seal again.

“I have looked long and hard, and I’ve never figured it out,” he says. “I don’t know who it was and I’ve never seen that scar on any other animal.”

On most mornings you can find Dunlap at Makai Research Pier just off Rabbit Island monitoring animals on the sanctuary. He jokingly says it’s the only place where the seals can avoid “ugly two-legged animals - us.”

Dunlap is angered and saddened by the recent death of Mikala, a 9-month-old female monk seal that was found dead, tangled in a gill net off Bellows Beach in Waimanalo. Officials from NOAA Fisheries’ monk seal research program say a necropsy of the animal determined it drowned. Dunlap says he knows of four other animals that have died of net entanglement.

“They are not just a bunch of nameless animals that show up on our beaches,” he says. “There are a cast of characters that live on Oahu and other islands with real personalities, and it’s our job to protect them.”

Like others who photograph the lovable creatures, he too focused his early images on “face shots,” but soon realized it was more important to researchers to photograph “scars, dings and discol-orations.”

Dunlap contributes daily to m, a gathering place for seal supporters and professionals to share stories, pictures and information.

“I had no plan when I first started. My wife and I laugh about it all the time,” he says. “She can’t devote the time I do, but she’s right there with me. She understands why I do what I do.”

He does it because he cares. It’s what volunteers do.

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