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 6, 2013

by Suzanne Canja, Cooperating scientist at Midway

When the NOAA ship Oscar Sette arrived at French Frigate Shoals at first light, crew and scientists onboard prepared to offload on small workboats to the island and set up a field camp. The seas were calm with not much wind to speak of. In the distance, the silhouettes of Tern Island’s man-made structures stood out against the morning skies. Four monk seal scientists packed their final provisions to make Tern Island their home for the next two and a half months. They had ample supplies to haul ashore, since a December 2012 storm left the island’s housing and its infrastructure unusable. The team planned to set up wall tents for their rooms and a kitchen on the edge of the island’s runway. They also packed 120 five-gallon jugs of water, since they would no longer be able to use the barrack’s plumbing and faucets. In the past, they had oven-cooked meals and hot running water. This season, things would be a lot more rustic.

The Sette’s crew lowered the small boats alongside the ship. They formed a line and carefully passed gear down the eight-foot drop over the ships edge to the awaiting boatmen below. The field crew hitched a ride with the first boat in; helpers accompanied them on the next. Once they got to Tern Island, the crew had a lot to do before they even started setting up camp. They repaired a hoist at the dock, which would allow the field workers to pull their boats out of the water each day for safekeeping. But first, it was used to lift large pallet tubs of gear off the workboats. A portable generator was needed to power it. In the past, the power came from a solar panel infrastructure, but was damaged in the storm.

I’m a biologist headed up to Midway, but I was selected to help the crew get things ready on Tern because I had worked here in the past. Once on island, I was alarmed to see the damage caused to the buildings. Walls in some places were completely gone, now open to the elements. Seabirds established squatting rights and were already nesting in old bedrooms. The living room had black noddies sitting on top of shelves where books about black noddies used to be. U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel boarded up the building where they could before they left the island, but the birds made use of what was available. It was surreal for me, since I had spent so many seasons calling that place my second home.

As the field crew continued with camp set up, another biologist and I did a survey around the shoreline. We were doing two things: looking for endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals mothers and pups and inspecting the dilapidated seawall to make sure no sea turtles were trapped. The seawall was built by the military, but has worn down over the years, posing a hazard in some areas. We found two new mothers with pups and three seals that had weaned from their mothers. Thankfully, we didn’t find any trapped sea turtles.

After the survey, I walked back to the dock, said my goodbyes and got on a boat to go back to the ship. Tents were set up and water jugs lined up, the camp was well on its way. When I worked here about six years ago, most everything we needed was stored in the barracks. Minimal supplies came up by ship. With all the changes, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for this place. Will it someday be restored back into a functional research post with internet access and hot showers where station crew can live comfortably year round and watch over the wildlife? Or will it go the way of the seasonal remote island field stations where personnel only are present for a few months out of the year in tents? I see value in both.


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