A year after 'Monk Seal Whisperer's' death, his legacy is still - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

A year after 'Monk Seal Whisperer's' death, his legacy is still felt

Marilyn Dunlap honored her husband DB Dunlap with a $45,000 grant that will continue monk seal research and conservation efforts. (Image: Patricia Couvillon) Marilyn Dunlap honored her husband DB Dunlap with a $45,000 grant that will continue monk seal research and conservation efforts. (Image: Patricia Couvillon)
OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Nearly everyday since 2003, Daniel "DB" Dunlap sat on Makai Pier, pointed his spotting scope toward Rabbit Island and documented the activity of Hawaiian monk seals.

About the only thing that would stop him from a six- or seven-hour day on the pier would be bad weather.

“He did that until the day before he died,” his wife, Marilyn Dunlap, said. “It will be a year Tuesday.”

DB was a citizen scientist, who gathered monk seal data on his own time for more than 15 years after he retired.

His legacy is permanently recorded in the 20,000 monk seal sightings he recorded and sent off to NOAA for those 15 years. 

According to NOAA, half of Oahu monk seal data has DB’s initials on it.

Honoring the naturalist

Marilyn continued his legacy by donating $45,000 to support Hawaiian Monk Seal research at the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

“When DB died, I wanted to do something to promote monk seals,” she said.

Marilyn, who is the interim associate director at UH's Pacific Biosciences Research Center, explained that those who knew DB would sometimes call him The Monk Seal Whisperer, and she would be referred to as Mrs. Whisperer.

It all started in 2001 on Sandy Beach. DB was photographing body boarders, but instead of capturing a surfer in his lense, he caught sight of a monk seal.

After that, the naturalist couldn't stop thinking about the seals.

At first, he and Marilyn would set up traffic cones and rope around seals to give them space. People on the beach began noticing their work, and called up DB when they spotted seals.

Slowly but surely, DB’s one-man-band conservation efforts formed into a community around the endangered species. He inspired countless volunteers to devote time identifying, tracking and protecting the animals.

Besides his daily report to NOAA, DB Dunlap also contributed to Monk Seal Mania, a blog site that helps readers follow the lives of the Hawaiian seals.

“They would call them DB’s Dailies,” his wife said.

On the Oahu beaches DB frequented, lifeguards, beachgoers and fishermen would familiarize themselves with the conservationist.

“They all knew him,” Marilyn said. “People on the pier saw him more than I would.”

DB’s sudden death came to a shock to many. He died a few days before a scheduled open-heart surgery.

Marilyn was checking up on locally well-known monk seals Rocky and Kaimana. She believes DB passed around the time she was out visiting the newborn pup and its mother.

Leaving a void

Tracy Mercer, a NOAA Hawaiian monk seal biologist, said that even a year after his death, scientists still struggle to fill the hole that DB left.

"We went from having information on Rabbit Island 365 says a year, to a lot less than that," she said. "His reports saved monk seal lives."

Mercer said that over the years, DB's knowledge in monk seal identification made him even more skilled than professional scientists.

Mercer is an expert in seal identification. She can identify almost every seal if its close enough. But she still can't say how DB was able to identify every seal on Rabbit Island from his perch on Makai Pier. 

"I didn't know how he did it," she said. "Through that spotting scope all the way from the pier, he could identify them with 100 percent accuracy." 

According to a tribute post by NOAA and the Hawaiian Monk Research Program, the naturalist shined bright in terms of research.

“He outstrips everyone, NOAA staff included, by thousands of reports,” the post read.

“He was a gifted naturalist, an inspiration to others to take up the cause, he was a vigilant protector of the seals, and he was unmatched in his level of contribution to our scientific efforts. But above all else he was, of course, the Seal Whisperer.”

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