Green Sea Turtle Nesting on Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

by Camryn D. Allen


Sea Turtle Research Team members Alex Reininger, Marylou Staman, and Jan Willem Staman prepare to depart for the distant Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for five months, aboard NOAA Ship Sette (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Shawn Murakawa).

Meet the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Sea Turtle Research Team
Marylou Staman (1st season) – Marylou conducted three years of sea turtle research on Guam, and only saw 30 individual nesting females.  She’s seen almost 14x that number in the first few weeks of the nesting season!
Jan Willem Staman (1st season) – Jan is making the big transition from being a full-time soccer player with the Guam national team to a turtle researcher on the French Frigate Shoals team.
Alex Reininger (1st season) – Alex has mostly known nesting sea turtles from those that strand and wash up on Oahu. She’s enjoying seeing them alive and well on their nesting grounds.

East Island

Welcome to East Island, Elevation 8 ft and Population of two Northwestern Hawaiian Island researchers! (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers)

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands sea turtle researcher team (Marylou, Alex, and Jan) arrived on French Frigate Shoals on May 30th to assess the number of nesting female green turtles because 96% of Hawaiian green turtle nesting occurs at French Frigate Shoals on East, Tern, Trig, and Gin Islands. Since then, they have identified 150 basking males and 416 nesting females. The peak of the nesting season has begun and the researchers have already seen 5 times the number of nesting females compared to the number of females seen for the whole season in 2016. So, 2017 will be a ‘whopper’ of a year, however, it is still less than our greatest nesting season with 811 nesting females on East Island (only) in 2014! Some of the turtles seen this year are turtles previously tagged on East Island during nesting events over 17 years ago and five other turtles seen this year were originally tagged during in-water captures in the main Hawaiian Islands (some as juveniles over 15 years ago)!

East Island Nesters

Green sea turtles nesting on remote atoll East Island, French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers).


“Hiwahiwa” or L2 has been nesting on East Island for 15 years. Her nesting migration to East Island in 2010 was tracked with the attached satellite tag (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers).

We want to highlight one particular turtle, L2, tagged by Hawaiian green turtle expert George Balazs. L2 is also known as “Hiwahiwa” – meaning precious, favorite – by Mālama Na Honu volunteers on the North Shore of Oahu. Hiwahiwa was originally found alive on Laniakea beach, Oahu with an impact lesion to her shell in December of 2001. After 11 days of rehabilitation at NOAA facilities, Hiwahiwa was released back into the wild. A few months later, in June of 2002, she was seen nesting on East Island. Since 2002, Hiwahiwa has been seen basking in the sun every year at Laniakea beach and in 2009, she was outfitted with a satellite tag so that scientists could learn more about her migration patterns. During the nesting season in 2010, Hiwahiwa was re-sighted back on East Island digging a nest (see photos with satellite tag attached). Just a few days ago, the sea turtle research team saw her digging a nest; fifteen years after the first time she was seen nesting on East Island!

The research team return to Oahu at the end of the nesting season (September) and will bring with them valuable information to determine the number of green turtles in the Hawaiian population. This data is important for designating whether the species is threatened or endangered so that we can effectively manage this distinct population of turtles.

All research conducted and photos taken under permit approval.

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Fattened Up on Fish-Popcicles: How to Rehabilitate a Hawaiian Monk Seal

by Stacie Robinson

Start the day thawing and weighing out fish for the day.
Add vitamins to each seal’s first fish.
8:00am feed the seals, wash the dishes.
Entertain the animals, maybe with a sprinkler or a delicious frozen fish-cicle (but avoid focus on people).
2:00pm feed the seals, wash the dishes. Scrub pen floors. Do a lot of admin.
8:00pm feed the seals, wash the dishes.
Log each seal’s appetite and behavior into the medical records system.
Clean up and get ready for tomorrow.
Repeat… 262 times.

That’s how the dedicated staff at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola (The Healing Sea) Hawaiian monk seal rehabilitation facility made the dramatic transformation you see in Niho‘ole and other young monk seals in need.

Niho‘ole (a Hawaiian name meaning “toothless,” because he was weaned so prematurely that his teeth hadn’t even grown in yet) was in a sad state with virtually no chance of survival when NOAA field staff picked him up on Laysan Island at the end of the 2016 Assessment and Recovery Camp season last August. Now, we brought Niho‘ole back to Laysan, fat and healthy!


Niho‘ole taking to the water after his release on Laysan Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Poor juvenile survival is one of key contributors to population decline in endangered Hawaiian monk seals. Reasons may range from pups weaning prematurely to young animals getting outcompeted for food. But the result is that when young animals fail to thrive, they can’t contribute to the population. So, since 2014, NOAA and its partners at The Marine Mammal Center have been working hard to help struggling juvenile seals through rehabilitation at Ke Kai Ola, in Kailua-Kona on Hawai‘i Island. After rehabilitative care, the young animals are healthy and have the fat reserves to re-enter the wild population with a fighting chance.

One of several figures behind this transformative care at Ke Kai Ola is Deb Wickham, Veterinarian Technician and Operations Manager. Deb joined us on our mission aboard the NOAA Ship Sette to bring 2016’s young patients back home.


Ke Kai Ola Operations Manager, Deb Wickham, on the Sette taking her patients back home to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

We asked Deb, “What are the big differences taking the rehab show from Ke Kai Ola to the road (or water)?” No, it’s not the round-the-clock watches to be sure the seals stay safe and comfortable on the ship’s deck. No, it’s not the amount of seal poo to be hosed down and cleaned up. The biggest difference is the challenge of getting seals to eat fish on the ship! Deb explains, “They want to eat in the water. It’s just more foreign, more difficult to get the animals to eat in a small enclosure with just a small water tub while we’re in transit.” Luckily (and by design), these seals are in great shape and can even stand to miss a meal or two if their appetite is down on the ship. Even so, this well-seasoned rehabber has some tricks up her sleeve–who wouldn’t be enticed by fish-cicles?!

Deb enjoyed her time on the ship and was very happy to get to travel full circle with these seals and see them return home! Her dream is to have more opportunities to rehabilitate more seals and get them back home in a timely manner.


Healthy and home – Mea Ola and Ha‘aheo are in a pen awaiting their release at French Frigate Shoals. Ke Kai Ola’s Deb Wickham watches over her patients, excited to see them back home (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

And the work continues–no sooner are last year’s healthy rehabilitated seals dropped off, our field staff have already identified animals in need of help this year. A prematurely-weaned pup and an underweight three-year-old came home with us on the Sette and are now getting settled in at Ke Kai Ola. Deb knows it will be a challenge to get these animals in good shape in time for the return cruise this August. But at Ke Kai Ola, that’s just the sort of challenge they can handle.

Luckily Deb has a soft spot for the older seals, like our three-year-old pup. She says they always seem like the hardest cases coming in, but it’s rewarding to see how much changes as they get healthier. We look forward to seeing the turn around in these two youngsters!


Two young seals in a pen at French Frigate Shoals, awaiting transit to Ke Kai Ola (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

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Hawaiian monk seals and pathogens: An ounce of prevention

by Michelle Barbieri

Ever wondered how to reboot a propane-powered refrigerator? Flipping it upside-down is actually a viable strategy. This is the latest challenge overcome by our remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands field teams in the initial stages of the summer 2017 Assessment and Recovery Camp’s monk seal vaccination program.


Map of the Hawaiian Archipelago with the Northwest Hawaiian Islands outlined.

Getting vaccinated for us humans usually means a quick trip to the doctor. We take our pets to the vet for their “shots.” For some wildlife, rabies vaccines are distributed in bait across the continent. But what about vaccinating marine wildlife, especially those that live in remote locations and may travel hundreds of miles? The hurdles are high, the path is uncharted, and no matter how much you plan and prepare, there are going to be times when flipping refrigerators upside-down is the vital solution.


Simple living in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands – the kitchen tent at Pearl and Hermes Reef field camp (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s vaccination efforts began in 2016, vaccinating seals on Oahu and Kauai against morbillivirus in order to prevent an outbreak that could be catastrophic for the species. To our knowledge, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal has never suffered from a morbillivirus outbreak, but recently, researchers have found other species of morbillivirus in Hawaii and the greater Pacific region. We know the monk seals are naïve (unexposed) to morbillivirus from decades of disease surveillance in the species. While that’s a good thing, we’d like to keep it that way!  When morbillivirus outbreaks have occurred in other marine mammals, the results were rapid and deadly, killing tens of thousands of seals and dolphins in Europe and North America.  With only about 1400 left in the world, the endangered population of Hawaiian monk seals can’t take such losses.

Recently, researchers developed mathematical models to estimate how an outbreak would spread if morbillivirus were introduced, say from another seal species or a dog. The results confirmed our fears–the monk seal population could be devastated. Vaccination is a proactive way to protect the monk seal, rather than waiting until the virus shows up to treat it.

Seal Population chart

What would happen in a seal population facing a rapidly spreading morbillivirus outbreak without vaccination? The red bump shows the peak of infected seals, the green line shows the rapid accumulation of seals “removed” from the susceptible seals (either after overcoming infection or succumbing to it).

Over the last 10 years, a vaccine (made for ferrets!) was evaluated for use in captive seals, including Hawaiian monk seals. After years of testing, planning, and practice, the vaccine was given to the first wild monk seals in 2016. Each seal needs two shots, about four weeks apart. Those efforts protected most of the seals around Kauai and Oahu and represented the start of the world’s first-ever species-wide vaccination program in wild marine mammals.

Now, in 2017, we are expanding the monk seal vaccination program to protect seals in the distant Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But launching this initiative across a span of more than 1,000 miles on remote, low-lying sandy islands and atolls is an entirely unique process with a lot of logistics to figure out. We’ve had to think of everything from propane fridges to keep vaccines cold, to min-max thermometers to monitor their temperatures in the field, to PVC pipe cases to keep sand out of syringes (which we fasten into “pole syringes”). We even modified our monk seal databases to track the vaccinated seals for the rest of their lives. We also need to vaccinate a LOT of seals to make a meaningful dent in the susceptibility of the monk seal population. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, monk seal populations are larger and denser than we’re used to in the main Hawaiian Islands. A disease would have more opportunities to jump between each seal and spread rapidly; therefore, we must vaccinate many more seals on these remote islands in order to achieve the same level of protection as the main islands.

Nihau seals

Many seals share the beach on Nihoa Island. Denser seal populations with lots of contact between animals are common in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

For nearly two months, field staff trained and practiced safely administering injections, and are now beginning to vaccinate seals. It’s just the first week of field camps and already 12 seals received vaccines. Another 25 seals have been vaccinated at Midway Atoll during short-term staff deployments. There’s still a long way to go, but we are well on our way to protecting these precious animals against a deadly outbreak.


Vaccination mission at Laysan: Helena preps the pole syringe with a vaccine dose; Kristen sneaks up on a sleeping seal to carefully deliver a vaccine; Hope runs from another after successfully vaccinating (and surprising!) the seal. Note: a syringe on a long pole is the least intrusive way that scientists can give vaccinations to seals for their protection. It’s important to keep your distance from seals. (Photos: NOAA Fisheries)

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Kaua‘i bottomfishers face rougher ocean conditions

In late April, the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group met with seven bottomfishers in Port Allen, Kaua‘i. It was a beautiful day in the low 80s at the Port Allen Fishing Club clubhouse. The winds were light and variable, with buoy 51003 indicating a declining late season swell of six feet out of the North-Northwest. And we were fortunate that these fishermen took time away from the ocean to share some stories about bottomfishing in Hawai‘i.

Calm ocean conditions and pre-sunrise view overlooking Nawiliwili Harbor, Kaua‘i on the morning of our interviews

What is different about Kaua‘i bottomfishing?

Abraham Apilado’s Force 30′

We wanted to know what makes bottomfishing around Kaua‘i different than the other main Hawaiian islands. As one Kaua‘i full-time commercial fisher explained: “[the] weather, water conditions are a little different around Kaua‘i, which makes fishing a little rougher and there’s less boats because of that.” Kaua‘i bottomfishers seemed to embrace the rougher water, particularly those making their living bottomfishing: “if the fish are biting, you’ll fish in anything.” As another explained: “if you’re waiting for light and variables, you’re going to go broke.” To make your living bottomfishing on Kaua‘i, you’ve got to put in the time out on the water. That water is often rough; you better learn how to deal with it.

Read the currents, find the fish

Many of the Kaua‘i bottomfishers described the adverse ocean conditions and strong currents that they must deal with on a consistent basis. They must learn to read and navigate these currents, since bottomfishing requires anchoring or slowly drifting to ensure that baited hooks reach preferred depths and habitat for Deep-7 bottomfish.

As the bottomfishers explained, the currents around Kaua‘i bottomfishing areas can be complex, sometimes moving fast on the surface, but perhaps not moving at all down near the bottom, which can make drops challenging. As one bottomfisher explained, “they only bite at certain currents,” perhaps because of the difficulty of placing their bottomfishing rigs on the precise spots where the fish may be located. Although this may stress the importance of timing, another bottomfisher explained the importance of patience: “The most important thing to me is to be patient. Patient in finding fish, getting fish to bite, waiting for currents to die, currents to change. All of that consumes a whole lot of time.” This patience may lead to fleeting moments when the fish are really biting. You have to be there when that happens if you want to make a living bottomfishing. Another bottomfisher stressed the importance of location, bathymetry, and currents: “[you] need to know grounds, the structure, the currents. The tide changes, get a gold rush, then it slows down.” In other words, there are a lot of variables to factor in when you’re bottomfishing.

Harrowing tales from commercial bottomfishing on Kaua‘i

The next time you complain about your rough commute to work, think about trying to navigate a channel in 30’ seas and 120 knot winds – during a hurricane. To make a living bottomfishing on Kaua‘i, some of the folks we interviewed put in 340-350 days of the year fishing. When you spend that much time out there, something scary is bound to happen. It’s just the law of averages.

Steve Wheeler, Steve Arnold, and Dan Klintoff share stories from their combined 120 years of bottomfishing in Hawai‘i

Steve Arnold and Dan Klintoff told us about driving their boat from Kaua‘i to O‘ahu in September 1992 prior to the landfall of Hurricane Iniki. Iniki was the most powerful hurricane ever to hit Hawai‘i. At its peak, wind speeds reached over 140mph. The storm made landfall on Kaua‘i, where it was responsible for six deaths and $1.8 billion dollars in damages.

At that time, Steve and Dan were fishing together and did not have insurance on their boat. They figured their uninsured boat might be safer on O‘ahu, so they decided to attempt the 70 mile trip to O‘ahu before the storm hit. The following transcript describes their white-knuckle ride to from Port Allen, Kaua‘i to Pearl Harbor on O‘ahu:

Dan: We went through Hurricane Iniki on our boat. That was a very scary time.

Steve: If you remember the Iniki circumstances, the storm turned and doubled its speed. We thought…we didn’t have insurance on our boat, so we thought we’d go to O‘ahu and it would be safer there. Anyway, we were about off of Waianae when we realized that we weren’t going to make it. We were off of Barber’s Point when it was kicking up to, what did they say, 160 knots?

Dan: I remember the Navy said we were in 125 knots of wind and 25 foot seas and we were off of Ka‘ena point. And they um…All of the buoys had got drug off of everywhere. And they let us into Pearl Harbor. We parked the boat right where the Missouri – this was before the Missouri was there – and they let us in. We parked the boat there and they came down with coffee and blankets for us.

Steve: But the hairy part was going into the entrance because there was at least 30’ breaking waves we had to go through. And the boat is really slow and it was three miles out these things were breaking. So we had to go through that kind of stuff for you know, 30 minutes. We got hit by three from behind, that rolled the boat all the way onto its side, surfing down the wave, with the flybridge…the flybridge was curved, I think that was a lucky thing, because it uh, it didn’t dig in. Because if it digged in, it would have rolled.

Dan: We actually blew out a window.

Steve: Yeah we blew out a window. Dan’s down there holdin’ the window in, I think he used a Stanley screw gun to screw it back in, but he’s still holding it. The whole time he’s doing this. It was scary.

Dan: That was probably the scariest thing.

Although this story may seem crazy, it’s merely one of many incredible stories Hawai‘i bottomfishers have contributed to the Bottomfish Heritage Project. We thank the Kaua‘i bottomfishers for sharing their time and stories with us. Stay tuned for more updates from the other islands. Please follow our socioeconomics blog so you don’t miss anything.

This project is supported by NOAA Preserve America Initiative and a National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Region Cooperative Research grant.

For more information about this research feel free to contact us:

For more information about other research from the PIFSC Socioeconomics Program visit our website or browse recent blog posts.

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The Saipan seen: from the big Bryde’s whale to the small spinner dolphin

By Marie Hill, Adam Ü, Allan Ligon, and Tom Ninke

After leaving Guam, the Cetacean Research Program conducted small-boat surveys for whales and dolphins off Saipan and Tinian during May 17-26, 2017.  During our second day on the water, we encountered a Bryde’s whale, which was only our 5th encounter with this species in the Mariana Islands and the first time that we have seen one off Saipan.  Our four previous encounters were in August 2015 off Guam and Rota.  Bryde’s whales are baleen whales and can grow to 51 ft in length.  They are sometimes mistaken for sei whales, but can be distinguished by the presence of three longitudinal ridges on the top of their rostrum.

Bryde’s whale encountered off Saipan on May 18, 2017. Photos: NOAA Fisheries/Marie Hill and Adam Ü


Bottlenose dolphin encountered off Saipan on May 25, 2017. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Marie Hill

A few days later, we encountered two groups of bottlenose dolphins.  We recognized a few of the individuals from our existing photo-identification catalog.  The others may be new individuals.

We deployed two satellites tags on bottlenose dolphins, on one dolphin from each group.  They spent the next several days moving up and down the west side of Saipan and Tinian, going as far north as Marpi Reef (~10 nautical miles north of Saipan).  The tagged dolphins spent a few days moving around together, but went their separate ways and on 29 May, one was off the northern tip of Saipan, while the other was off the northern tip of Tinian.

Satellite tracks from tags deployed on two bottlenose dolphins, with the track from the dolphin with tag #141698 shown in white and the dolphin with tag #169421 shown in red. The larger squares with the tag numbers are the locations of the two dolphins at the time of blog writing.

The third species that we encountered was the spinner dolphin.  Spinner dolphins get their name from their aerial behavior.  Check out the following video where you can see a dolphin underwater preparing to launch out of the water and then see it spin in the air.


During our surveys off Saipan, we encountered spinner dolphins five times.  We saw some of the same individual dolphins during each encounter.  These individuals are in our spinner dolphin photo-identification catalog, and we have seen some of them in multiple years since 2010, when we began conducting small-boat surveys in the Marianas.

We were joined by our colleagues Kym Yano and Erik Norris on several days.  They were out here to refurbish and re-deploy the bottom-mounted passive acoustic recorders called High-Frequency Acoustic Recording Packages (HARPs) that are listening for cetaceans year-round.  We have one off the northeast side of Tinian and another off the west side of Saipan out at 300 Reef.  The NOAA ship Hi‘ialikai helped us out by picking up the Tinian HARP.

NOAA ship Hi‘ialikai under a rainbow off Saipan. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

All survey operations including satellite tagging, photo-id, and biopsy sampling were conducted under NMFS permit. Funding was provided by the NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet. We would like to thank the owner and captains of Sea Hunter, the CNMI NOAA Fisheries field office, and all of our volunteers during the surveys.

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The People Aboard NOAA’s ARC: Teams Pearl & Hermes and Kure

Get to know the bold field biologists stationed on remote islands for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Assessment & Recovery Camps.

Every year (since the 1980s!), the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program has deployed camps in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to monitor and help recover the population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals. These assessment and recovery camps, or ARCs, are deployed from large NOAA research vessels. Large vessels are necessary because they need to transport everything that field staff at five camps will require for their three to five month season in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. You can follow the latest deployment cruise on our Story Map. We thought it would be nice for you to get to know the dedicated biologists of our monk seal ARCs and will introduce them over a series of three blogs.


Map of Pearl and Hermes Atoll.

Team Pearl and Hermes

With over 450 square miles of coral reef and less than 1/4 square mile of total land area, Pearl and Hermes Atoll is dominated by vivid blues (rumored even to have inspired paint colors). The Pearl and Hermes team spends a lot of time out in the cerulean waters traveling between islets to survey the atoll’s seal population.



Pearl & Hermes Team: (L-R) Caroline Cummings, Alix Gibson, Darren Roberts, Megan Roberts (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Darren Roberts (6th season) – Now a hardened field biologist alternating seasons between the NWHI and Antarctica, Darren’s first degree was actually in music theory, and he has even performed at Carnegie Hall.  We’re waiting to hear his theme song for camp Pearl & Hermes!

Megan Roberts (3rd season) – Growing up in rural Idaho, Megan didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing till she was 16.  No wonder she adjusts so well to life in this remote island camp!

Caroline Cummings (1st season) – Caroline recently completed her Master’s degree studying seals in Scotland, she also learned to love kilts and beer.  She’s excited to learn about another seal species.

Alix Gibson (1st season) – Alix has been nurturing marine life at many levels – she’s got rare skills in raising moon jellyfish.  This summer she’ll gain a whole new skill set to help monk seals!


Pearl and Hermes camp, just 12 feet above sea level at Southeast Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).


Teamwork! The monk seal camp team and staff from the State of Hawaii’s Department of Forestry and Wildlife pitch in for the hard work of hefting water and other gear to set up field camp (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Team Kure Atoll


Map of Kure Atoll.

The farthest point in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Kure Atoll is home to an old U.S. Coast Guard post turned field camp. The Kure monk seal team is small, but they enjoy sharing the camp with members the State of Hawaii’s Department of Forestry and Wildlife team.

Ilana Nimz (4th season) – Ilana claims she can’t smell – I guess that means she’ll be collecting the scat samples this season. Besides being a talented scientist, Ilana is also quite the artist. She turns glass balls, woods, and any other debris she can get her hands on into works of art.

David Golden (1st season) – David started honing his outdoor skills as an eagle scout.  Hmmm we should probably make some merit badges for all the way these field biologists can save seals over the course of a season (disentanglement, antibiotic injections, vaccinations, reuniting moms and pups, moving pups away from shark predation, and more!)


Kure Team: (L-R) David Golden, Ilana Nimz (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).


Monk seal camp at Kure Atoll, one of the only monk seal inland camps and it rests in the center of Green Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

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