First monk seal camp deployed at French Frigate Shoals

Photos and post by Siri Hakala 

Sooty Tern

Sooty Tern

Two days ago we deployed the first camp. 612 gallons of water, 550 gallons of gasoline, 12 60lb cylinders of propane, 3 canvas tents, multiple buckets of quarantined clothing, ~100 buckets of non-perishable food and other necessary miscellany, and 5 intrepid field biologists.

We commonly refer to the people who staff the field camps as ‘campers’ but this might lead folks to underestimate the experience level and professionalism of these seasonal staff. Between the four monk seal biologists and one turtle biologist they have at least three advanced degrees, many years of experience in the NWHI, Antarctica, Alaska, the Rockies, St. Croix and California, and at least one of them is an EMT. The monk seal campers will spend the next three months surveying Tern Island and running the two small Boston whalers to the other islands in the atoll to survey, disentangle, and tag monk seals, and fish for Galapagos sharks (who are a major threat to monk seal pups). The turtle biologist will stay most of the time on East Island, the nesting ground for most of the green sea turtles in Hawaii.

 

Field scientists tend to share an almost pathological work ethic. And I do mean that in the best possible way. I think it comes from having found their calling, and ‘getting the job done’ is their fullest expression of self. They’ve dedicated their lives to studying and saving endangered and threatened species. There is a job to do, and they’re the right people for it. The most excellent by-product is that when everyone feels the same way, and pitches in with the same fervor, that job is also very fun.

Deploying the camp involved at least 12 trips to Tern Island from the ship. The tractor on island is broken, so all the gear detailed above had to be hand-carried (with the help of wheeled carts) from the dock to the warehouse down a bumpy coral runway. A group of us had the opportunity to spend the night on Tern, and help with the offload. I am no longer in field-scientist-shape, so am still hurting two days later from pulling carts laden with water and buckets down the deteriorating runway. But it’s a happy hurt.

It takes a special kind of person to look forward to spending three months on a remote island with no running water with only 4 other people. Conditions at Tern are lux compared to the other field sites though. In addition to the canvas tents, propane stoves and solar powered freezers that will be off-loaded at each field site, this group will have a large warehouse with electricity, a weight machine, and even …an outhouse. Those additional luxuries are courtesy of USFWS, who used to have year-round staff at Tern.

USFWS FFS Refuge Manager Meg Duhr-Schultz captures a brown noddie to fix its band

USFWS FFS Refuge Manager Meg Duhr-Schultz captures a brown noddie to fix its band

French Frigate Shoals has been a wildlife refuge since 1909, but World War II had some impact on the use of the islands. After the war it continued to be managed by USFWS and a Coast Guard LORAN station was also operated from there (for more history- see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Frigate_Shoals or http://www.to-hawaii.com/frenchfrigateshoals.php). Like other agencies, USFWS has been hit with some pretty major budget cuts and has essentially eliminated any staff on island. Because of this, we have the USFWS Refuge Manager, another USFWS biologist and one USFWS contractor with us who also spent the night on Tern and took the opportunity to do perimeter entrapment patrols of the island, change the oil in the generator, and plan out maintenance work to be done in the future, when possible.

A micro-burst storm took out the old Coast Guard barracks in 2012, so now our field campers stay in tents. After we were done hauling all the gear that was going to arrive that night, we started putting up the canvas tents. These are larger than your average camping tent, and is best to think of them as temporary living quarters. The field staff built semi-permanent wooden bases for them the previous year, wooden bases that appeal greatly to sooty terns and brown noddies who decided that these short walls made excellent spots to lay eggs. So setting up the tents became a dance of “don’t step on the egg/bird/adorable hatchling”. It’s a nerve-wracking dance.

Because FFS is a refuge, the wildlife is in charge, particularly the birds. And they seem to know it. Sooty terns, brown noddies, red-footed boobies, tropic birds, white terns, and laysan and black-footed albatrosses were the most common. The wedge-tailed shearwaters came in at night with their somewhat spooky calls. One of the field campers, Kirstie, generously offered to share her tent with Stacie (our recent HMSRP hire) and me. Two other campers had very graciously pulled mattresses in from the old barracks so that we had places to sleep. The tents were comfortable by night, but the birds, oh the birds! They never stopped their conversations! And sooty terns really do sound like irate New Yorkers. I felt like I was continuously offending them, which, by my presence, I guess I was.

Before we left the ship that afternoon, newbies like myself had been warned to watch where we put our feet with every step. There would be birds, eggs and hatchlings everywhere. Birds had even been known to move under your foot as it was coming down. So every step was deliberate. It takes a lot of concentration to remember to watch the ground for every footfall. And walking through any kind of underbrush was a tense affair. The sooty terns and brown noddies are very dramatic, and even if they don’t have a hatchling hiding under there, they will have you imagine that they do.

Morning dawns

Morning dawns

When morning came the next day, it was with mixed emotions that I left that unique place after so short a stay, but I really did look forward to being able to walk without feeling like I brought potential death with every footstep. If there’s a metaphor here for humans’ impact on the non-human natural environment, taking a walk on Tern Island might be it.

The albatross chicks were losing their downy fluff- leaving them with varying ‘hairstyles’. I call this gallery “the chicks of Tern Island”. (idea courtesy of Darren Roberts)

 

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