Photos: Minnesota Zoo previews rare seal exhibit

Nani, a Hawaiian monk seal
Nani, one of five Hawaiian monk seals at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minn., waited for food, May 13, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Five new Hawaiian monk seals are exploring their new home at the Minnesota Zoo.

On Memorial Day weekend, the zoo will unveil the seals at the redesigned Discovery Bay exhibit, which once housed the zoo's dolphins.

The Hawaiian monk seals are a critically endangered species, zoo officials say. The five female seals were brought to the zoo from SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas. They can't be released in the wild.

"We knew they could not survive on their own again in the wild because of their limited eye sight — they couldn't avoid predators, they couldn't find prey," said Melanie Oerter, a marine mammal zoologist with the Minnesota Zoo. "And so they were kept in a human care facility so we could provide for their needs and take the best care possible for them."

Named for their monochromatic gray or brown coats, monk seals were hunted nearly to extinction in the late 19th century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Oerter says there are about 1,100 left in the world.

The Minnesota Zoo Discovery Bay dolphin exhibit was closed in 2012, after six dolphins housed there died over six years.

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Oerter says Discovery Bay has been renovated for the monk seals, including land strips where the seals can rest above water.

She says this will be the only public viewing area for the rare tropical seal species outside of Hawaii.

"This is a really unique opportunity for folks right here in Minnesota to come out and see a critically endangered marine mammal that only resides off the shores of Hawaii," she said. "So it's very important that we communicate their conservation story so people can learn more about them and what we can do to help them."

Oerter said the zoo will have three daily Hawaiian monk seal demonstrations.