24 days, 900 buckets, 4 seals,…

It is the end of another Hawaiian monk seal field season.  The research cruise to pick up all of our field teams has returned, and our Chief Scientist for the cruise, Stacie Robinson, reflects on the experience.

…580 water jugs, 50 pelican cases, 30 liquid nitrogen dewars, 22 pallet tubs, 6 boats, and plenty of odds and ends.  But, hey, who’s counting?  It takes a lot of gear to make a safe and successful field camp in the most remote islands in the Pacific!  And it takes a lot of help to get it all packed and hauled back to Honolulu at the end of the field season!  Huge thanks to the NOAA ship Sette crew and officers (unsung heroes for sure) for another very successful monk seal camp pick-up cruise!

buckets

Hoisting a seemingly endless number of buckets from camp – to small boat – to ship – to home. (NMFS Photo)

Hawaiian monk seal assessment and recovery camps have been deployed since the 1980s.  By now, it’s a pretty well-oiled machine (even an inexperienced chief scientist can mostly just keep watch as the machine works – thank goodness!).  And yet, the routine never quite becomes mundane.  Every day on the cruise, the monk seal team seems to be confronted with some new challenge.  And every year, the team finds ways to throw in a few curve balls for the ship (mission changes, emergencies activities, and more), and the vessel crews find ways to keep batting a thousand!

Sometime even routine gear loading from camps has its challenges. For example: Aug 13, stop #1 at Pearl and Hermes Camp: “Hey guys, today we just need to be in three in places at once – pick up marine debris from multiple islands across the Pearl and Hermes atoll, find a seal that needs to be tagged, load up some gear, and get done in time to deploy an acoustic device before making our transit 16 hours to the next site.”  Done!

PHRdebris

One small step in island clean-up. One giant bag to pull off the beach! (NMFS Photo)

Some logistics never seem to become routine.  Landing on steep rocky islands like Nihoa and Mokumanamana is always a challenge – just one swell or gust of wind away from missing out on monitoring entire monk seal subpopulations.  This year was a treat – weather cooperated and coxswains expertly navigated – we were able to survey both hard-to-track islands.  Numerous seals and healthy pups greeted our survey teams.

mok-mom-pup

One of five mother-pup pairs observed during the survey of Mokumanamana. (NMFS Photo)

Since the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program started translocating monk seals between Northwestern Hawaiian Islands sites, their baaah-ing and pooing were welcomed (or at least tolerated) on deck by the crew and officers.  Then transit with seals got a little longer when The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital brought the possibility of rehabilitating animals if only our ships could bring them to Kona.  How to top such requests?  This year we stretched our capacity to take on our oldest rehab candidate yet (a 5 year female in emaciated condition).  The Sette crew was helpful in taking on a larger animal, and the three other patients picked up this cruise.  And they even accommodated an after-hours small boat launch to save the patients from one more night on the ship when we arrived in Kona as the sun set.

seals-off

A successful cruise wraps up with loading seals (in kennels) into the small boat for transit to Honokohau harbor, and then on TMMC’s Ke Kai Ola rehabilitation facility. (NMFS Photo)

Back to solid ground and the creature comforts of home, scientists and sailors celebrated briefly and then got to work cleaning up camp gear or prepping for the next cruise.  For a novice chief scientist, it’s a relief that none of the wrenches upset the well-oiled machine.  Field staff all home in one piece, complete dataset to better track the species, and four young seals with a second chance at survival – the end of another field season is a little bit like the start of a new year for Hawaiian monk seal research.

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

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