The Best Laid Plans…

To paraphrase the immortal words of Robert Burns, the best laid plans of monk seals and unmanned aerial systems often go awry.

We are currently on day three of our NOAA’s ARC journey to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to conduct monk seal research and recovery efforts.  Part of the mission is to continue our work testing APH-22 hexacopters for use in monk seal monitoring work.

Our plan for this leg of the cruise is to fly the “bird” to survey for seals at Nihoa and Mokumanamana and map Tern Island at French Frigate shoals to document some of the entrapment hazards that are a threat to monk seals and other wildlife.  We will talk more about Tern Island in our next blog entry, so stay tuned.

Looking east on Nihoa's beach

Looking east across the main beach of Nihoa. This sandy beach is the primary haul out for most of Nihoa’s monk seals. (NMFS Photo)

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The APH-22 hexacopter in flight on a previous mission. Hopefully, it will fly again soon for monk seals. (Photo by Ali Bayless, PIFSC)

The APH-22 is great little machine.  Its six propellers provide stability and control, as well as ensure the bird won’t crash if an engine or two fails.  Onboard processors help it withstand gusts from any direction by revving some motors and slowing others to compensate for forceful push and pull of the wind.  Yet despite the miracles of technology, there are still some limitations to when and where we can operate.  If the winds are blowing faster than 15-20 knots, we can’t fly.  If it is raining, we can’t fly.  Only by the grace of fickle Mother Nature are we able to fly or relegated to be earthbound.

These past two mornings, we were greeted by majestic views of two of the Archipelago’s most impressive islands thrusting up from the ocean.  Birds launched from sheer cliff faces to ride the winds that swirled around these sacred islands; swirling winds that were much too powerful for our own bird to take wing.  So despite over a year of planning for this operation, Mother Nature had other ideas, and the APH-22 stayed in its box.

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Several monk seals, including mothers and pups, resting on a lava ledge at Mokumanamana. Marine debris litters these remote protected haul-outs. (NMFS photo)

But spirits are still high for the flying team.  It is hard to be disappointed when you sit at the foot of these islands.  We also have one more day of flight ops planned for tomorrow, and the forecast looks promising.  So please keep your collective fingers crossed for us.  This is the most important flying day we have.

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The UAS team returning to the Sette after searching for a calm spot to fly the hexacopter. Disappointment is lessened by the majesty of Mokumanamana and the Sette bordering a rising sun. (NMFS Photo)

Despite wind and swell putting the damper on our UAS mission, the seal survey team was still able to land on both islands to count seals.  These visits are critical, as Nihoa and Mokumanamana are becoming ever more important locations for monk seals.  The monk seal tally for Nihoa was 34 seals, including 3 mother/pup pairs and 2 weaned pups.  Mokumanamana had a total of 18 seals, with 5 nursing mother/pup pairs.  That is a great day for Mokumanamana!

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Mother and pup monk seal sleeping in a tide pool at Mokumanamana. (NMFS Photo)

We now turn the ship northwest and head to French Frigate Shoals.  Flight operations start at 9 AM tomorrow…Mother Nature willing.

All monk seal work was conducted under NOAA ESA/MMPA permits 16632-01 and/or 18786.

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