In the warm, coastal waters of Kona, Hawaii, divers equipped with lights set out every night to watch a swarm of hungry manta rays -- one of the oceans most majestic and gentle creatures -- glide their way through dinner.
The sight, while magical, has become fairly routine. But a group of seasoned dive photographers from Manta Ray Advocates Hawaii was recently treated to a completely unexpected experience when an extremely rare Hawaiian monk seal swam into the mix.
"We've done tons of manta ray dives every night since 1991 and we've never ever, ever seen a monk seal on it," Ryan Leinbach, one of the photographers, told Hawaii News Now.
This particular monk seal, named Waimanu, is one of just three monk seals to inhabit Hawaii's Big Island, and she's currently pregnant.
There are currently fewer than 1,200 Hawaiian monk seals in the wild, making them one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world.
The divers made sure to minimize interaction with the curious seal, as per National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommendations.
Stacie Robinson of the NOAA's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program told Hawaii News Now that increased human contact could lead to eventual dependence.
"The more they're accustomed to humans, the more they think it's okay or enjoyable to play with humans or interact -- the more danger that animal is going to have and the harder it is for us to protect this really special Hawaiian species," she said.
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