We are sailing across the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Oscar Elton Sette. 

The Sette is a working ship: Researchers undertake numerous scientific endeavors; engineers ensure the engines pulse and drive us forward; officers keep us sailing safely; stewards create amazing meals and keep everyone happy; and the crew makes sure that everything else that needs to happen, happens.

On this working ship, the low rumble of engines vibrates throughout the whole structure.  The air is tinged with the smell of diesel, the lifeblood of our ship.  There are incessant bangs and clangs, the chorus of a gently rocking ship.

And then there is the laughter, barked commands, and chatter of the diverse individuals that have found themselves on this tiny ship in the middle of the Pacific.  It is a group of people with a shared mission, which turns strangers into teammates and teammates into family.

This is what life was like on the ship until just recently.

But now, new smells have permeated the air, and they are not sweet smells.  New sounds reverberate throughout the ship at odd hours, but they are far from peaceful or soothing.  With this odor and cacophony, it is hard to get enough sleep.  And yet we are eternally grateful, for these are the smells and sounds of hope, the stench and clamor of dreams coming true.

There are monk seals on board!

With the world-class rehabilitation facilities at the Hawaiian monk seal hospital, Ke Kai Ola, our research vessel has become a kind of ambulance staffed with first responders who bring seals on the brink of starvation to salvation, and then return them to the wild.  This research cruise, like many of our recent cruises, has been busy with rehabilitation activities.

Our first patient on the cruise took us by surprise.  It was the second day of our mission, and we deployed our team for a day to Ni’ihau to survey for monk seals.  One of the survey teams came across a tiny emaciated female pup; the story is told here.  This little one, which the folks on Ni’ihau named Kilo, is doing well so far.

Hawaiian monk seals, Pearl and Hermes eating

Hawaiian monk seals, Pearl and Hermes, eating fish.

Several days later, we loaded Pearl and Hermes, two recent patients of Ke Kai Ola, onto the ship.  Their three month stay in the hospital served them well.  Gone were the tiny pups we had brought in — the two seals that found themselves on the aft deck of the Sette were blubbery masses ready for freedom.  We just have to get them back to their natal atoll.  A good narrative on what it is like to take care of these portly passengers can be found here.

But now, I would like to introduce you to a new passenger aboard the Sette.

Earlier this week, we diverted our mission at Mokumanamana to head directly to French Frigate Shoals (FFS), where team members had found an emaciated female pup in need of rehabilitation.  We weren’t scheduled to stop at FFS until the return leg of the cruise — some 14 days later — but the FFS team was doubtful the pup would last that long.  Though our stop at Mokumanamana was critical for a few reasons, we are in the business of saving seals, so the island would have to wait.

Green Sea Turtle and Hawaian monk seal (AG18) on beach

On the right, Ke Kai Ola rehab candidate, Hawaiian monk seal, AG18 also known as Ama’ama.

A day later, we arrived at FFS and were greeted by a small vessel carrying four hardened field biologists and one tragically tiny pup.  The small boat pulled alongside the Sette and the FFS team quickly handed the pup up to the waiting crew.  AG18 had embarked, we thought, until we heard a shout from the FFS team over the railing: “Her name is Ama’ama.” So, Ama’ama had embarked.

(Side note: Ama’ama is Hawaiian for striped mullet, a fish.  Ama, as she’s called for short, was born on Mullet Island at FFS and now bears the name of her home.)

We have been holding off on sharing Ama’ama with you, as she was in pretty rough shape and the first day or two of rehabilitation is always critical for any seal.  As can be expected, she needed hydration, electrolytes, and food, but she also needed rest and quiet — a delicate balance. It had been a nervous period for all on board, but we think we are through the worst of it.  And though there is much to tell about her care, we will save that for another day.  For now, we just want to report that she is doing well.

And our family on the Sette is doing well, too.  Every morning we are greeted by the calls of Ama, Pearl, and Hermes that float across the deck.  They remind us of the awesome honor and responsibility we have in this grand challenge to recover monk seals.

Challenge accepted.

About NOAA Fisheries PIFSC

NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center conducts scientific research & monitoring that support the conservation and management of living marine resources.
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