A loose-looking celestial monk seal lounge near a white sandy beach on green foliage. His eyes are half closed and he has a calm expression on his face. But the calm attitude of the seal surprised.
Why? Well, there's a long black and white eel hanging from his right nostril.
"It's just so shocking," said Claire Simeone, a veterinary and monk seal expert based in Hawaii, opposite the Washington Post. "It's an animal with another animal in its nose."
Simeone was not the only person to be surprised by the photo of the seal and its unusual facial decoration, which was released on Facebook earlier this week by the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
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The image, taken this year on the remote northwestern islands of Hawaii, has since become viral, pointing to a rare phenomenon that continues to astonish scientists who are now asking the endangered seals for "better choices."
It all started about two years ago when Charles Littnan, chief scientist of the Monk Seals program, woke up to a strange email from researchers in the field. The subject line was short: "Eel in the nose".
"It was like this:" We found a seal with an eel in the nose. Do we have a protocol? "Littnan told the post in a telephone interview.
There were none, Littnan said, and it took several e-mails and phone calls before the decision was made to grab the eel and try to pull it out.
"It was only a few inches of the eel from the nose, and it was very similar to the magic trick when they pull out the tissues and keep coming and coming and coming," he said.
After less than a minute of tearing, a two and a half foot eel emerged from the nostril of the seal.
According to Littnan, at least three or four cases have since been reported – the most recent one this fall. In all cases, the eels had been successfully removed and the seals were "good," he said. However, none of the eels survived.
"We have no idea why this happens suddenly," Littnan said. "You see some very strange things when you observe nature long enough, and this could end up becoming one of those little curiosities and secrets of our career that we will have over the next 40 years, we will retire and always ask still exactly how that happened. "
Researchers have already stated that this is not the result of a person having a personal vendetta against seals and eels, since all cases have been reported from remote islands that are only visited by scientists. Littnan said he has a few theories about how eels could naturally be clamped in the nose of a seal.
The preferred prey of a seal – usually fish, octopi and of course eels – likes to hide in coral reefs so as not to be eaten. Since the marine mammals have no hands, they have to hunt with their faces.
"They like to put their faces in the coral reef holes, and they spit water out of their mouths to flush things out, and they do all sorts of tricks, but they poke their faces in holes," Littnan said.
An eel in the corner decided that the only way to escape or defend himself was to shoot up the nostril of its attacker, and young seals that are "not yet very adept at fetching their food" needed one learn difficult lesson
But Littnan said that theory does not make much sense.
"They are really quite long eels and their diameter is probably close to what it would be for a nasal passage," he said.
He added that the nostrils of a monk seal that reflexively close when they dive for food are very muscular and that it would be difficult for any animal to prevail.
"I'm struggling to think of an eel that really wants to get in the nose," he said.
The other way eels might end up in the nostrils is throwing. Just as people sometimes mistakenly spit foods or drinks out of their noses, so could seals that often dissolve their meals.
Still, Littnan said it does not seem possible that a "long, fat eel" will end up going through the nose of a seal, not out of his mouth. The most plausible theory, he said, is that monk seal teens are not that different from their human counterparts. Monk seals "seem to be attracted to difficult situations, of course," Littnan said.
"It almost feels like one of these teenage trends," he said. "A young seal did this very stupid thing and now the others are trying to imitate it."
Although no seals have died or been seriously affected by the eels, a dead animal that has been in the nose for a prolonged period of time may be harmful to health, said Simeone, director of Ke Kai Ola, a monk seal hospital in Hawaii, of The eels are run at Marine Mammal Center.
With an eel in its nose, a monk seal could not close the clogged nostril while diving, meaning that water could get into the lungs and cause problems like pneumonia, Simeone said. A decaying Aalkadaver could also lead to infections, she said.
On Facebook, the photo of the seal had more than 1600 responses early Friday morning. The title was, "Monday … it may not have been good for you, but it must have been better than an eel in the nose." It also became a trend on Twitter.
Many expressed their sympathy that the seal had to learn what a Twitter user called "the most unpleasant thing".
"RIP eel, but how satisfying the seal must have been when it was pulled out?" another person was wondering.
Littnan, however, told The Post that the young seal was "apparently quite unremarkable, with two feet of eel sticking out of his face."
In general, Simeone said marine animals are "very stoic," adding, "It's amazing what kinds of things they can tolerate."
While "Eelscale" has not really made it into the seal community, Littnan said he hopes this will never happen.
"We hope it's just one of those lint that will disappear and never be seen again," he said.
If monk seals could understand people, Littnan said he had a message for them: "I would gently ask them to stop."