"The Odyssey of KP2" by Terrie Williams

May 10, 2013

A baby seal abandoned on a remote beach on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, is an unlikely champion for endangered marine mammals worldwide. But tiny KP2 quickly captured the hearts of admirers across the islands, and the world, with his love for all things human and his playful and inquisitive personality.

Kauai Pup 2, whose Hawaiian moniker Ho’ailona means “a sign from the ocean,” is one of only 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals in the world. The highly endangered species is biologically tied to the temperate waters around Hawaii, where they regularly spar with local fishermen over a dwindling fish population. Unless scientists can learn more about how to improve their prospects, they face extinction within 50 years just as their cousins, the Caribbean monk seals, did in the 1950s.

Wildlife biologist Terrie Williams offers a fascinating glimpse into the situation in her book “The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species.” Her record of her work with KP2 in her marine lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz, chronicles not only the science behind Hawaiian monk seals, but also the species’ connection to humanity and marine mammals worldwide.

Prior to her work with KP2, little was known about Hawaiian monk seals. Due to their fragile status, scientists had not been allowed to study them in a lab. But all that changed with the precocious KP2.

Raised almost from birth by humans, the young seal developed a deep and lasting attachment that drew him to frolic with young swimmers in the waters of Molokai’s Kaunakakai Wharf. His love for playing with beach toys and surfing on a bright pink boogie board quickly won over the local population, resulting in local news stories and, eventually, a story in the Wall Street Journal, a CBS news report about the “friendly seal pup that acts like a puppy,” and even YouTube videos.

While islanders viewed him as an honored member of the community, local fishermen saw him as a threat. In a controversial move, government officials stepped in to send the “troublemaker seal” across the Pacific Ocean to Williams’ lab.

Despite her long-held rules and steely resolve, Williams eventually bonded with KP2 while also uncovering his surprising intellect and unique seal biology. Her delightful account offers insight into science, humanity and what it will take to save the world’s oceans.