The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette may appear like an ark on the horizon for field researchers who have spent months on remote islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Biologists dedicate two to six months to studying endangered monk seals as part of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s long-running Assessment and Recovery Camps or “ARCs.” The field teams rely on NOAA ships for food, water, equipment and supplies in these isolated conservation regions of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The NOAA ships also complete the story “arc” by transporting seals to rehabilitation and back to their homes in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
During its current voyage, from August 3 through August 26, 2016, the Oscar Elton Sette will pick up researchers and their equipment from five sites—French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure Atoll. Additionally, a small group of researchers will be deployed at Midway Atoll (where there is no season-long camp) to continue monk seal assessment and recovery activities. The scientists will also conduct seal censuses at three other sites: Nihoa Island, Mokumanamana (Necker Island), and Ni‘ihau Island.
ARCs are a long-established cornerstone of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, providing the foundational data and information for species recovery actions. But as conservation challenges constantly evolve, so does field research. This mission will deploy new unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to investigate remote survey techniques for rugged islands that are difficult to survey such as Nihoa and Mokumanamana. The UAS flights will also map vegetation, locate marine debris, and document the deterioration of man-made infrastructure at French Frigate Shoals. As structures and sea walls collapse, it results in entrapment hazards for the atoll’s wildlife, including monk seals.
After retrieving field researchers and their equipment, the Sette will transport weaned seals from NWHI sites to The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital in Kona, Hawai‘i Island. Years of data have demonstrated that pups weaning under-weight have little chance of survival. Through the partnership between NOAA monk seal scientists and The Marine Mammal Center’s hospital, struggling pups get a second chance. The seal pups receive a season of rehabilitative care and then are returned to their natal sites as healthy yearlings ready to thrive.
Periodically during the expedition, shipboard personnel will collect oceanographic data on subsurface ocean temperature and conductivity by taking CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) measurements. The data will be added to a comprehensive NOAA oceanographic database and used to better understand large-scale phenomena like climate change and the dynamics of local features such as oceanic fronts.
The research mission will also provide support for several partner projects and agencies working in the NWHI. A small team of bird biologists for the American Bird Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be deployed at Laysan Island. Additionally, the Sette will pick up NOAA sea turtle biologists who have worked alongside the NOAA seal team at French Frigate Shoals.