The image – made this year on the far-off Hawaiian islands of the northwest – has become viral, drawing attention to a rare phenomenon that continues to confuse scientists who now beg for threatened seals to "make better choices."
It all started about two years ago, when Charles Littnan, the chief scientist of the monk seals program, woke up with a strange e-mail from researchers in the area. The subject line was short: "Eel in the nose."
"It went like this:" We found a seal with an eel stuck in the nose, do we have a protocol? " Littnan told Post.
There was none, Littnan said, and it took several e-mails and phone calls before the decision to pick up the eel and try to pull it out.
"There were only about two centimeters of eel still coming out of the nose, so it was very much like the wizard's trick when they took off their handkerchiefs and kept coming and going," he said.
After less than a minute of pulling, a dead 75-centimeter eel emerged from the nostril of the seal.
Since then, Littnan has said there have been at least three or four reported cases – the most recent occurring this fall in the United States. In all cases, the eels have been successfully removed and the seals are "doing very well," he said. However, none of the eels survived.
"We do not know why this is happening suddenly," Littnan said. "You see some very strange things if you look at nature long enough and that might end up being one of those little quirks and mysteries of our careers that in 40 years we will be retired and still questioning how that happened."
Researchers have already determined that this is not the result of a human being with a personal revenge on seals and eels because all cases have been reported on remote islands that are only frequented by scientists. Littnan said he had some theories about how an eel could naturally end up stuffed into the nostril of a seal.
A seal's favorite prey – usually fish, octopuses and, of course, eels – like to hide inside coral reefs to avoid being eaten, and since marine mammals have no hands, they have to hunt with their faces.
"They like to stick their faces in the holes in the coral reefs and spit water to kick things out and do all sorts of tricks, but they're sticking their faces into holes," Littnan said.
Perhaps, he said, a trapped eel has decided that the only way to escape or defend himself was to swim to the attacker's nostril and young seals that "are not very fond of food" have been forced to learn a difficult lesson.
But Littnan said the theory did not make much sense.
"They are actually very 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, which reflexively close when they are diving to eat, are very muscular and would be difficult for any animal to pass.
"I struggle to think of an eel really wanting to force its way into a nose," he said.
The other way eels end up in the nostrils is vomiting. Similar to how people sometimes accidentally spewing food or drinks from their noses, this can also happen with seals, which often regurgitate their meals.
Still, Littnan said that it did not seem possible for a "fat, long eel" to go through a nose rather than a mouth. The "most plausible" theory, he said, is that the monk seal teenagers are not so different from their human counterparts. Monk seals "seem naturally drawn to problematic situations," Littnan said.
"It almost looks like one of those teen trends that happens," he said. "A juvenile seal has done this very stupid thing and now the others are trying to imitate it."
Although no snout has died or been seriously affected by eels, having an animal killed in the nose for a long period of time can cause adverse health impacts, said Simeone, director of Ke Kai Ola, a Hawaiian monk seals hospital run by Center of marine mammals.
With a eel lodged in his nose, a monk seal would not be able to close the blocked nostril when diving, which means water could enter his lungs and cause problems, such as pneumonia, Simeone said. A decaying eel carcass can also lead to infections, she said.
On Facebook, the seal photo had more than 1,600 reactions on Friday morning. The caption read, "Mondays … may not have been good for you, but it should have been better than an eel on the nose." It has also become a trend moment on Twitter.
Many expressed sympathy for the seal having to experience what one Twitter user described as "the most uncomfortable thing of all".
"RIP eel, but how satisfying must have been to the seal when it was removed?" another person wondered.
However, Littnan said the young seal "apparently looked quite oblivious to the fact that there were two eel feet coming out of his face."
In general, Simeone said marine animals are "very stoic," adding, "It's amazing the kind of things they can tolerate."
While "sniffing eels" has not really appeared in the seal community yet, Littnan said he hopes this will never happen.
"We hope it is just one of those worms that will disappear and will never be seen again," he said.
If the monk's seals could understand humans, Littnan said he has a message for them: "I would kindly beg them to stop."
The Washington Post