SANTA CRUZ -- Here's a holiday gift idea for your environmentally conscious loved one: a plush toy that helps save the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.
A group of UC Santa Cruz scientists are selling plush seals, called "The Real Seal," to raise awareness about the plight of the most endangered marine mammal in U.S. waters, said ecology and evolutionary biology professor Terrie Williams.
Each toy is embroidered with a unique identification number matching a wild seal in Hawaiian waters, of which only 1,100 remain.
Due to increased human interaction, decreased food sources and tsunami debris from Japan, the monk seal population drops four percent each year, and researchers project its extinction within 50 years, said Williams, who directs UCSC's Marine Mammal Physiology Project.
"We're at a point now where we're desperately trying to find creative ways through the research to make the difference," Williams said.
The toy, which sells for $39.95, raises funds for research at UCSC's Long Marine Lab, where Williams' group studies the behavior patterns of KE18, a 10-year-old Hawaiian monk seal. To locate critical habitats, the group studies the seal's optimal water temperature and depth, as well as its caloric intake.
Sales also fund field research in Hawaii run by the National Marine Fisheries Service, that looks at similar measurements in the wild.
Williams said the group's goal with the toy sale is to create a connection between the public and an endangered animal living in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
"In trying to keep any kind of conservation work going in the islands, I think it's very hard when you don't see the animal," Williams said. "I think if we had a little more public empathy for these big, wild animals, we'd be a little bit better off."
Purchase of the toy includes educational modules for teachers, to introduce fourth- and fifth-grade students to the science behind monk seal conservation.
Change happens when people have the information to get inspired, said Beau Richter, the Marine Mammal Physiology Project's head trainer.
"There are so few left that if things don't change, it will be another species people won't be able to enjoy in the open ocean," Richter said.
Richter urged the public to get involved by creating projects such as beach cleanups and petitions, which toy owners can post on the group's website.
Williams said "The Real Seal" is no regular mass-produced toy.
"You've adopted a real seal," said Williams. "There's somebody out in the wild that's depending on you."
Follow Sentinel reporter Kara Guzman at Twitter.com/Karambutan.
WHAT: Hawaiian monk seal adoption to fund research
COST: $39.95, includes unique plush toy and access to online community and educational materials
TO REGISTER: www.savemonkseals.ucsc.edu