The Beginning of the End…of the Season: The 19-day mission to recover monk seal field camps and save seals

A beautiful morning outside Kure Atoll with Green Island in the distance.

This morning the sun rose into a clear blue sky, the wind gently tousled the flags on the ship’s masts, and the sea rolled slow and steady with barely a ripple on the surface.  These are perfect conditions for our first full day of real operations on the 19-day trip aboard the NOAA RV Hi’ialakai. The mission of research cruise HA-17-03 is to pick up 4 of our 5 monk seal research teams that have been deployed in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands since May.  The teams, spread across the islands and atolls, have been collecting important population data, vaccinating seals, cleaning up marine debris and doing some life-saving interventions.  But, now it is time to come home.

So, today the Hi’ialakai sat just off the western outer reef of Kure Atoll, completing a long day running small boats to and from Green Island and the ship.  The boats headed to the islands carried additional water and supplies for the State biologists who will overwinter there and on the return carried buckets of gear (lightly dusted by bird guano), solar panels, gas cylinders, reams of data and more.  The last boat of the day carried our first two returning field team members, Ilana Nimz and David Golden.

HI-2 carrying a cargo of buckets, dewars, and a variety of other gear that helped our field teams survive and complete their conservation science mission.

Our ever so precious crane on the Hi’ialakai. Without this glorious piece of equipment nothing could get done. It lifts the boats. It lifts the gear. It lifts the people. In crane we trust.

One of many bags of debris we will be picking up from the NWHI this season.

Each camp will have a summer’s worth of stories to tell and we are going to ask each camp to share their highlights with you as we move down the chain.  First up are stories from Kure Atoll, so read on below, and stay tuned to hear the tales of the other 2017 NOAA’s Monk Seal ARC (Assessment and Recovery Camps).  We hope to not only successfully retrieve all of our crew but maybe a monk seal patient or two for Ke Kai Ola.

 

Scientist David G. taking his first step onto the ship after months at Kure Atoll.

Scientist Ilana N. can barely contain her excitement at the thought of fresh greens, showers and air conditioning after several months in the field.

Ilana and David bidding a fond farewell to Green Island and Kure Atoll and turning south back towards Honolulu. Check out the continuation below to find out what their highlights of the 2017 monk seal field season were.

 

First up in a story from Ilana Nimz, one of our biologists at Kure Atoll:

The Sounds of Seals: The trials and tribulations of monk seal acoustic studies.

By Ilana Nimz

Ilana and her field partner David have spent the last several months at Kure Atoll.  While they had many monk seal adventures this summer, a unique component of their work was conducting an acoustic study. Here are a couple stories from their many hours of recording.

Kure is the only island this year that recorded Hawaiian Monk Seal sounds in collaboration with a researcher in France who is analyzing their vocalizations in conjunction with their behaviors. Armed with a recorder and a microphone (with a wind-block cover that makes it look like a kid’s karaoke toy) that gets attached to a telescoping pole and is propped near the seals, we set out to find animals that look like they will talk. Whenever we are trekking out to do a recording, the DLNR team jokes about what interview questions we are going to ask the seals. David, my Kure partner in conservation, developed a pretty neat survey shelter/seal viewing blind consisting of our aluminum tent poles and a camo-print bedsheet. If it’s camo, the seals can’t see us, right? Operation Desert Kure. For the most part the seals pay us no mind, but if they do notice us they tend to give us a bored but perplexed look during set up, then go back to their business.

As I was recording, two of the mom/pup pairs had a pup switch.  Sometimes, when multiple mom/pup pairs are in the same area they might accidentally “exchange” pups.  Other times, a recently weaned pup might displace a smaller nursing pup without mom noticing.  In this instance the pair we were focused on was resting on the beach and the other mom/pup pair entered the water about 100 meters away. The pup I was recording seemed to have noticed he was with the wrong mom and booked it towards the water and started swimming and calling for its real mom. I picked up the giant microphone, turned on the video camera (Breaking news story!!!) and followed the pup down the beach and watched a very confusing confrontation between the moms. There were lots of barks, growls, flipper slaps, and pups calling at each other while going between the moms (Drama!). Eventually, one of the moms raised her flipper and began slapping the water, which looked like a parent waving “Child, get over here! Get over here NOW!” and her biological pup happily obliged and swam off with her. Whew.

 

We then spent the next couple of hours trying to code all of those behavior interactions associated with the vocalizations  …even with the video supplement to the audio recording, it was quite a challenge.

During another audio recording session of a mom and pup, the pup got curious and hauled up to the microphone and started sniffing it. In the recording, we could clearly hear the “SNIFF… SNIIIIIFFF” while the mom barks at the pup in the background. Eventually the mom decided she needed to take control of the situation and hauled up to the microphone as well, and barreled into it with her back. The microphone pole rolled off of the crate it was propped on, abruptly bringing an end to that listening session. Well played mom.

Unfortunately most of the time, the seals choose to plead the 5th, except for a few sneezes and snorts. Even though the animals are silent, we wait for an animal to cruise by to instigate a reaction and get them talking! In the meantime, we enjoy observing the seals, birds, clouds and soak up the simple pleasures of life on a remote island.

Once our ship returns to Honolulu, the recordings and data will be sent off to our colleague so she can unlock the secrets of monk seal communication.  If you are interested in similar work that was done with Mediterranean monk seals you can check out this scientific article.

 

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