We’re three days into a 26-day journey to drop off 14 field campers for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP). The field staff will camp on remote atolls until September, taking daily surveys/censuses of the seals, marking them with bleach (id numbers) so they can be identified at a distance, flipper tagging new pups, and intervening in a variety of beneficial ways to aid in monk seal survival (disentangling from fishing gear/marine debris, lancing abscesses, re-uniting moms and pups who’ve been separated, intervening when there’s an aggressive male seal threatening a pup, etc.). Basically it’s the annual 3-month-long fairy godparent visit for the species. A recent calculation estimates that 30% of this endangered population is alive today due to the efforts of this program. (learn more about HMSRP here: http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/hawaiian_monk_seal/index.php)
An added bonus for this trip is that, for the first time, we have the option of picking up young seals that are either emaciated or ill, and bringing them down to the newly opened monk seal hospital, Ke Kai Ola, in Kona (part of the Marine Mammal Center). There they can be treated, hopefully recover from whatever ails them, and then catch a ride back up to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in September for the pick-up cruise.
Today we reached Mokumanamana. We launched two small boats from the NOAA R/V Hi‘ialakai and sent a small, experienced crew to do land surveys for monk seals (Mark Sullivan, Shawn Farry, and Darren Roberts). There they found 22 seals total: 1 nursing pup, 4 juveniles, 3 sub-adults and 14 adults.
This drop-off cruise is mainly a transfer of people and gear. All of the atolls exist within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and most are under quarantine restriction. All clothing worn on these islands must be either new, or previously worn only on that island. Everyone going onto quarantined islands has their designated clothes packed in big Ziploc bags, in a largish bucket, in the walk-in freezer. All clothing going onto the islands must be frozen to kill whatever might lurk there. Also because of quarantine, buckets or other hard sided containers are the storage items of choice.
And so the dry lab and the wet lab are full of buckets. The 02 deck (two levels above the main deck) has pallets and pallets of water jugs. These folks will be on island for 2-3 months depending on timing of drop-off and pick-up. Tomorrow we reach the first drop-off point: French Frigate Shoals. Five people will disembark until September. We moved 102 water jugs from the 02 deck to the grated deck and filled them with fresh water in preparation for tomorrow’s drop-off.