Into the NWHI: Stories of the 2013 Hawaiian Monk Seal Field Camps

Get a glimpse into field life in the NWHI through the eyes of conservation scientists who will be living on the islands to conduct monk seal research and recovery efforts until September.

July 3, 2013 – The Departure

by Jessie Lopez, JIMAR Field Logistics Supervisor, Chief Scientist on Sette Cruise SE13-05

The alarm sounds right over my head, urgent and sharp. A sound like a school bell immediately followed.

“Test is complete, please heed all further alarms,” says the voice over the PA system.

Testing the emergency and fire alarm systems is just one of the steps taken before the Oscar Elton Sette departs from port.

“Chief scientist, chief engineer, boatswain, survey tech, please report muster to the bridge,” calls the same voice over the loud speaker. I make the call, reporting a full muster to the officers on the bridge. The scientists are all aboard, many scattered throughout the outer decks of the ship, making last minute phone calls to friends and family before embarking on a three-month field season. Many are stowing last minute gear. A few are already curled up in their beds, awaiting a long transit.

Sette-monk seal

The ship’s propulsion is tested before lines are cast off and we slowly make our way out of Pearl Harbor. Eighteen other scientists and I are about to depart for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for a 19-day journey to drop off seasonal field camps on far remote islands and atolls. The field teams will be conducting research and recovery activities on the endangered Hawaiian monk seal in the part of its range that few people know about, much less are able to visit.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands span the area beyond the main Hawaiian Islands, northwest of Kauai for 1,200 miles, almost to the international dateline. Ten islands, atolls, or shallow reefs are scattered throughout this area, representing the most ancient lands in the Hawaiian Archipelago. This area is also known as Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and is home to the majority of the Hawaiian monk seals alive today.

Only about 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals remain today. The species is found only in the Hawaiian Archipelago. Although in recent years, the population in the main Hawaiian Islands has been doing well with fat, healthy pups, and promising survival rates, overall monk seals are still declining at a rate of about 4% per year. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands these seals face a wide variety of threats including shark predation, food limitation, parasites, entanglement in derelict fishing gear, and even aggression from adult male seals.

For over 25 years the Hawaiian monk seal research program has been traveling to the islands in the Northwestern Hawaiian chain to study these seals by getting counts of the populations, number of pups born each year, conducting necropsies on dead animals, and collecting biological samples. In more recent years additional projects have expanded the repertoire of the research being done in an effort to not only document the trajectory of the population, but also mitigate the multitude of threats faced by the seals.

Preparation for each field season begins the moment the previous field season ends. It takes months of planning, purchasing, and packing all of the gear and supplies to conduct this research and sustain a team of scientists on an uninhabited island for 3 months. This preparation has consumed me in recent weeks and this day, the day of departure, has always been my favorite. This is the day that everything comes together and whatever is on the ship when it drives out of Pearl Harbor is what you have to work with.

Once the ship is out of Pearl Harbor, she turns west towards Kauai. The seas are calm with a light rolling swell and almost no wind. This is a good day to be on the water instead of on land where the tropical heat and no wind made it feel hot and muggy. As we make our way along the south coast of the island of Oahu, the ship and crew conducts fire and abandon ship drills so that everyone on board knows what to do in the event of an emergency. We go through the “welcome aboard” briefing given to all new personnel on the ship. Then we hunker down for the 24-hour transit to our first stop, Nihoa Island, where our work will begin…

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