It Takes Two: The Conservation Adventures of the Loneliest Monk Seal Camp

Keelan B. and Brittany D. comprised our monk seal team at Lisianski Island.  This is the only camp that has only two field researchers making it critical that they get along and can work together.  They had a busy season filled with some strange occurrences and impressive conservation successes.  Here is their tale from a summer in isolation.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be one of the last two people left on Earth? What would you do? Or if you were stranded on a deserted island and you could only bring one thing, what would it be? Well, three months on Lisianski Island for a Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) Assessment and Recovery Camp allowed my colleague, Brittany, and I to experience just those scenarios. Welcome to Lisianski Island: population 2!

We were tasked with monitoring the island’s sub-population of over 150 Hawaiian monk seals. Our days were filled with some lows – swatting our way through clouds of native flies, wading through waist-high, choppy water and bushwhacking through spider infested vegetation, and some highs – curling our toes in Lisianski’s white soft sand, gazing at the blue-green expanse of Neva Shoals, and bidding aloha to the sun as it set in a crimson sky at the end of a hard day of work. Our island, while short on people, hosted a wide variety of sea birds, including albatross and frigate birds. Red-tailed tropic birds call the island home, and return annually to raise their chicks there; female green sea turtles migrate back to Lisi (short for Lisianski) to lay their eggs under the Milky Way. The heliotrope-ringed coast, leads to one spectacular feature known as “weaner cove”, where the weaned pups learn how to be seals after mom has left them to their own devices, and a long limestone ledge has given the island a reputation for unique beauty; as Brittany would say, “it’s a little magical.”

“Weaner Cove”

Our daily life was far from mundane, always busy and filled with fixing things, maintaining camp and balancing our daily needs with research objectives. Our four tents were graced with albatross and masked booby chick tenants living under the shade of our tent overhang. We watched these tent mates grow and fledge, heading out into the big blue on new wings like so many birds before them. Though our kitchen facilities were less than 5-star, we made due with soufflés and grilled cheeses with red peppers on camp-made bread, or after more exhausting days: soup, mac n’ cheese, or nachos. Our toilet facilities consisted of a long drop, dug deep into the fine Lisi sand, supported by a triangle of plywood boards topped with a toilet seat, exposed to both the starry night sky and the pouring rain. Our sanity and connection to the outside world rested firmly in the grip of a solar system designed to harness the sun’s rays for our satellite devices, computers, and iPads. The island offers no source of fresh water, so we must to bring our own in dozens of 5-gallon water jugs.  Water is precious, resulting in primarily saltwater ocean baths after surveying the entire island.

In addition to our annual mission to identify our seals, disentangle them of marine debris, clean our beaches, tag the year’s new pups, and explore our island home away from home, this season marks the beginning of a large-scale effort to vaccinate monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands against morbillivirus. Morbillivirus, a group of viruses which includes canine distemper and measles in humans, has the potential to devastate the already critically endangered species. After many years of discussion, research, and hard work, this summer marked the first ever species-wide vaccination effort to be made on any free ranging marine mammal species. Equipped with a propane-powered refrigerator, two spring-loaded pole syringes, some granola bars and 220 vaccines, we set out to change the fate of a species.

The learning curve was steep, but we rose to the challenge! Our goal? 100 fully vaccinated seals! This goal is especially lofty since each seal requires two doses of the vaccine to achieve immunity; the booster (second dose) must come in a narrow window some three weeks after the initial dose.  Remember these are wild seals, there is no telling if or when they’ll show up for their booster! We were also faced with a limited timeline to complete our boosters, as our vaccines expired partway through the summer season. A massive undertaking, we were ready to give it our all.

We spent many long hours and walked many long miles looking for and observing our seals, choosing the best candidates for our limited vaccines, favoring our adult females and the next generation. We had good days and days that tested us, and of course we had moments where we questioned if we’d reach our goal.  On our last day of vaccinations, we each walked around the island determined to make our goal. On our first sweep, we reached 99 seals fully vaccinated out of the 109 who had been given their initial shot. Not to be defeated, we walked the island one more time finally reaching our goal with the vaccination of the adult male seal, TY73! Though we were too tired to celebrate (or brush our teeth before bed), we went to sleep knowing that two-thirds of Lisi’s seals were safe in the event of a deadly morbillivirus outbreak.

Though vaccinations were the crowning glory of our season, and perhaps our young careers, that project was by no means the only significant work we conducted. We had two eel-in-nose events, following on the heels of last season’s first ever occurrence of this natural oddity. It is impossible to explain what goes through your head when you come across a weaned pup with an eel protruding from a nostril. Though we don’t know exactly how this happens (and we may never know), it goes to show that these unique seals will always keep us guessing!

Additionally, we had 4 entangled seals that needed assistance. We were surprised to see one of our favorite juvenile seals resting on the beach with a 5-foot long Styrofoam block attached to a length of plastic line wrapped tightly around his midsection. With a little quick thinking and planning we were able to loosen the line and leverage the Styrofoam block to pull it completely off. A few days later we found an eel cone (used in the offshore fishing of hag fish and frequently found washed ashore), fitted snugly around a weaned pup’s snout preventing her from opening her mouth. One quick pull and she was free to go about her weaned-pup antics. Our last two entanglements were of a more nefarious nature and consisted of debris wrapped around seals’ necks. The first, a sub-adult male with a piece of rope around his neck, was cut free using a seat belt cutter and some quick fingers. Our last entanglement, a weaned female with a plastic ring around her neck, was freed when we were able to break the ring and pull it free.

Though life in the remote Pacific is not an easy life, it is certainly unique and perhaps a special kind of wonderful. We learned a lot this summer, both about ourselves and about the wildlife we are surrounded by and work to save.   We were honored to be a part of cutting edge conservation work, on the forefront of saving a unique and endangered species.

Lisianski Island, named for its discoverer Captain Lisianski, who shipwrecked on Neva Shoals once upon a time, described the island as “offering nothing to the adventurous spirit”. I think it is safe to say, we could not agree less!

This entry was posted in Protected Species and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.