God’s Artistry in a Completely Unexpected Sea Creature

“Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great.” Psalm 104:25

It was our final day in Maui and I’d been to a dozen snorkeling spots where I’d logged thirty-some hours in the water. I’d seen hundreds of varieties of reef fish (Monday blog), dozens of turtles (Tuesday blog), and a number of eels. But that morning I asked the Lord, knowing full well there are countless things far more important, if He would graciously allow me to see something in the water I’d never seen before. (A tall order, since I’ve seen sharks, squid, eels, turtles and lots of other creatures.)

For no particular reason other than that I hadn’t been there this time, I decided to go in at Waihikuli Wayside Park—north of Lahaina and south of Kaanapali—and swim north to the cemetery, at Hanakao’o Park, then circle back to where Nanci was on Waihikuli beach. I’d done that route a couple of times on previous trips and seen turtles and decent fish, though nothing spectacular.

Thirty minutes into the snorkeling I second guessed myself when I hit some cloudy waters. I was the only person in the entire stretch, not one other snorkeler was visible the entire time. Everybody else was at Black Rock, Napili, Kapalua, Honolua, old airport beach, Olawalu or down in Kihei, or the other places I’d been on earlier days. Anytime you’re a couple of hours in the water in Hawaii and never see another person, you know you’re not in a popular place!

Finally I came to some clear waters, with good visibility. I was poking around, occasionally diving down to the reef below in water that was about ten feet deep. All of a sudden my heart raced as I saw a shadow in the water and sensed a large presence over my right shoulder. This has happened to me before, maybe a half dozen times. Usually it’s turned out to be a giant sea turtle. Once it was a huge moray eel, seven feet long, its mouth gaping at me (I love to photograph eels, but I much prefer it when I find them in the reef than when they find me in open water).

This time when I turned my head I heard the sound of my own gasp. I was looking into the two eyes of a huge creature, far longer than a human being and four times the width. I was startled, but before I could even analyze what I was looking at, I started taking pictures, because too often your encounters with the most interesting creatures are very brief. I figured I might be near this thing ten seconds, then have to study the photos later to meditate on what I’d seen.

The creature was whale-like in its body shape, and my first thought was it was a sea lion. I knew there were Hawaiian monk seals, though I’ve never seen them in the water. But when I think of a seal I think of a relatively small creature, maybe four feet long. This was easily three or four times the body mass of what I think of as a typical harbor seal.

It turns out that my instinct was wrong that this creature might race off from me. I ending up spending the next hour and a half with her. I say “her” because I’ve read up on Hawaiian monk seals, and they say that the females are larger than the males, and can be eight feet long and 700 pounds. Well, when you spend 90 minutes with a creature, often within a foot of her, sometimes being brushed by her, you compare your body length with hers. When we were eye to eye, horizontal in the water, I looked way down past the end of my fins and I still saw a very large part of her massive body extending beyond. While in the water, I guessed she was ten feet and well over a thousand pounds. Even after reading later about the size of monk seals, and having to scale down the estimates, I’m certain she was at least nine feet. So maybe she was the Shaquille O’Neal of monk seals, I don’t know, but she was just enormous. Scary big. And, okay, I became very fond of her, we bonded, and I named her Molly. I don’t want to keep calling her “that creature.” And she had a very definite personality, and she probably thought I did too, though I doubt she named me.

I’ve seen some massively huge turtles, one 15 years ago that I think must have been 450 pounds, and I’ve seen some large sharks (I did not seek to hang around with them for 90 minutes, and neither did I name them). But I have never seen anything in the water even remotely close to Molly’s size. When she brushed against me, the power of that body mass was incredible. I can’t explain how strange it is to be in the water with such an interesting creature so much bigger than you. My daughter Karina mentioned the intelligent hross creatures from Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. Yes, I will always think of Molly now when I read that book.

She was graceful and seemed as curious about me as I was about her. I would have to swim away in order to try to get her to fit completely into a picture, even with a wide-angle lens, which is usually no problem! And she would often swim after me, closing the distance between us. We had a lot of eye contact, some of which you’ll see in the pictures. And I have to just say this, and maybe I’m biased, but I think Molly is just adorable. Some of her expressions of shyness and longing and curiosity were incredibly dog-like. She was…well, dare I say it, sweet.

One of the unusual aspects of this was that I was in a very remote area, where there were literally no other snorkelers or divers. Not one single person visible in the water in the entire 90 minutes I was with Molly. I would have loved to share my discovery, which would have either delighted or freaked out your average snorkeler, but nobody was there. (So now I’m sharing it with you in this blog; some things demand an audience.) One picture I took holding out my camera in an attempt to get Molly and me in the same picture when she surfaced. But because I’m two feet from the camera and she’s nine feet from it, it doesn’t begin to do justice to her size.

I mentioned in one of the two earlier ocean animal blogs that I always carry a radio in a waterproof bag that allows me to talk to Nanci. So I was able to call her and tell her about Molly. It was a third of a mile swim, and high rocks prevented access from the shore even though I was only 150 feet out. But Nanci was able to come to the shore and look out at us and see Molly’s whale-like appearance when she surfaced. Nanci commented on how Molly kept swimming toward me. Other people who were picnicking gathered around, so while no one was in the water, there was a land audience. I felt like I was a trainer at Sea World, except I had no fish to feed Molly. So Nanci and I got to share this experience together, and we’re very grateful.

I have to tell you, this was 90 minutes of absolute worship. I was enthralled, fascinated, and absorbed in this beautiful creature. Such a work of art moves you to praise the Artist. And I thought, how kind of God to answer my simple child’s prayer to show me something on that last day that I had never seen before. It was like He put Molly there for me. And in a strange way, I kind of felt that maybe He had put me there for her.

Here are some of my hundred plus photos of Molly. (The monk seal is an endangered species; some sources say there are only 1000 of them left in the entire Hawaiian islands, one says it’s down to hundreds; if so, it was all the more remarkable to have encountered her.) When near the surface of the water Molly appears brown, when deep in the water, and on the ocean floor, she appears blue. Both colors in the photos reflect her true appearance in the different locations. After the photos I have two videos I think you’ll enjoy. 

One of the fabulous things, which I got to witness probably ten times, was Molly diving down in the water, finding a favorite large portion of reef, and tucking herself in under it! Because of her buoyancy this kept her from having to work to stay under the water. She would then place her head in a favorite spot (the first time it wasn’t visible, but she chose two other spots where her head remained visible, as you see in some of the pictures). And then she would close her eyes. They say that seals will actually sleep like this until they need to come up for air, and are capable of surfacing, breathing, and returning below while remaining asleep! Molly wasn’t asleep, but she was at ease. In the video that follows you’ll see Molly surface and then at the end tuck herself in under the reef. Having been there, it was priceless.

Three of my 90 minutes with Molly:

One of Molly’s favorite underwater resting spots was about eight feet deep, another was twelve feet. I preferred the twelve foot spot because finally, at full wide angle, I could actually get her whole body in the while staying over her!

This other video is only 25 seconds. It’s my farewell to Molly. I came down very close to her face, 12 feet under, turned on the camera and held on to a rocky portion of reef (I always wear reef gloves and never grab fragile reef), with one hand and shot the video with the other.

To top off the magical culmination of our time together, listen to the whales singing as I spent my final moments with Molly.

If I am right that despite “no more sea” of Revelation 21, that there will still be large bodies of water and representatives of the two-thirds of God’s animal kingdom that lives in the water, and that Romans 8 suggests some animals alive today may live again on the New Earth, then perhaps I will see Molly again. If God was so kind to answer my prayer here on this earth under the curse, why not on the New Earth, where joy will be the air we breathe, and all God’s creation will bring Him thunderous praise? (By the way, I never believed that animals, and perhaps some present animals, might be on the New Earth until after I studied the biblical passages; I wasn’t convinced by sentiment but Scripture.)

Swimming away from Molly was like leaving an old friend. Honestly, if not for Nanci waiting (patiently; she was excited, too), I would have gladly stayed there hours longer. I’m grateful for the pictures and videos, because they take me back to those wonderful 90 minutes I will never forget.

“Let everything that has breath praise the LORD” (Psalm 150:6). Well, as a breathing mammal, created by God, who was pleased by all the creatures He made, I’ll suggest that in her own way Molly praises the Lord. And without a doubt God prompted me through her to praise Him. What higher purpose could she or I have served?

Thank you, Lord, for the wonders of your creation, for how even in their ruined remnant they still speak mightily of your wonder and majesty. Thank you for the powerful and graceful creature you granted me that time with. Thank you for answering my prayer for something that you didn’t owe me, that I didn’t deserve, that I hadn’t earned, but that moved me to tears that You would so kindly grant to me. The next time I pray to see something I’ve never seen before, I will brace myself for what you might send!

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries