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.

17 Days of Lisi

July 19, 2013

by Tracy Wurth

Mission:  Spend approximately two and a half weeks on Lisianski Island (aka “Lisi”), in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), collecting as much monk seal population data as possible, tagging all the weaned pups, and mitigating any major threats to survival.  Crew:  one seasoned veteran (me), a camper with one field season under his belt, and a brand new volunteer.

The three of us traveled to Lisianski on board the MV Kahana, a 150 foot freight vessel chartered by US Fish and Wildlife Service.  We arrived bright and early on the morning of June 30, offloaded gear and equipment and spent the day and early evening setting up camp.  For those of you who have never set up a monk seal field camp, it is exhausting work, especially with only three people to do it even with our downsized, ‘short-camp’ status.

Lisianski is a single, low lying, coral island situated in the northern end of a reef complex known as Neva Shoals.  The island is located at 26’02 degrees North and 174 degrees West, approximately 905 nautical miles NW of Honolulu.  The island is roughly 450 acres and 3.3 miles around if you were to circumnavigate the perimeter, which we did every day, sometimes twice.


Seals on the rocky ledge on the east side of Lisianski Island.

Lisianski Island was discovered in 1805 when the Russian Exploring vessel, the Neva, ran aground on the nearby reef (Neva Shoals).  The Captain, Urey Lisiansky, felt just in naming the island after himself and claiming the nearby reef shoals in his ship’s name.  After several days of trying to refloat their ship, a handful of crew made their way to the island and returned to the ship with “four large seals that they had killed with hand spikes”.  This was the first account of monk seals on Lisianski.  The monk seals would fare better on our trip.

On day two of our stay on Lisi, we set off to see what we had around the island and find some weaned pups to tag. We counted three nursing mom and pup pairs and a bunch of already weaned pups that desperately needed flipper tags. One of the moms was easily identifiable by the fact that she was missing one of her hind flippers (and part of the other) due to a shark injury many years ago.  Despite having only one hind flipper (which monk seals use to propel themselves through the water), she has survived, although she is small for her age.  Initially we worried she would wean her pup too early, but she was still nursing when we left the island and giving all she had to her pup.

The next 15 days were a blur of seal surveys and weaned pup tagging.  Every day we would walk around the island counting and identifying every seal we saw and tagging any available weaned pups.  Our highest count was just under 80 seals on a single survey.  Most evenings we would make a second trip around the island looking for weaned pups to tag that we may have missed.  Seemed like every other day a new untagged weaner would show up on the beach, generally in the vicinity of the “weaner pool,” a small cove with a reef ledge on the eastern side of the island.   By the end of our 17-day stay on Lisi, we had tagged 11 weaned pups, identified 124 individual seals, disentangled one weaned pup from marine debris and conducted one seal necropsy.


Gear staged on the beach ready to be picked up by the Sette.

Of course life on Lisi was not just about the seals.  Lisianski, like the other islands and atolls in the NWHI chain, is home to a myriad of breeding sea birds, and we shared the island and many of our experiences with them as well.  And although our stay on Lisi was relatively short in terms of monk seal camps, we made the most of our time on island.  Lisi was as beautiful as I remember and I hope to someday return to the island with the finest, softest sand in the entire Hawaiian Archipelago.

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