HICEAS “Hilite”: Diving into the secret lives of short-finned pilot whales

By Amy Van Cise
HICEAS Cetacean Observer

It didn’t take many days into the ongoing Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS) to see short-finned pilot whales. They came, during our second sighting of the cruise, as they so often do–meandering slowly through, seemingly unbothered by the flurry of melon-headed whales that were darting around them. You would never guess they are called the “cheetahs of the sea.”

Once underwater, though, they sprint down to the darkness of the deep ocean, up to 800 meters, to hunt for squid and other deep-water prey. Short-finned pilot whales hunt and live their lives in stable social groups of 15-30 animals. When they hunt, half of the group will dive while the other half stays at the surface. The whales will make social calls while they’re separated, so they can find each other when they return to the surface.

Short-finned pilot whales spend most of their lives in pairs, or dyads, and in close companionship with a small group of other animals. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

Behaviors like these have made scientists take a closer look at how important sociality is to short-finned pilot whales. Scientists have found that animals in Hawai‘i spend most of their lives in small groups of close relatives. Those small groups are very selective about what other groups they will associate with, and where they will spend their time. This selective behavior has led to three separate communities in the main Hawaiian Islands–a western community around O‘ahu and Kaua‘i, a central community extending from O‘ahu to Maui, and an eastern community around Hawai‘i Island.

While we know a lot about the eastern and western communities–which families live there, who they associate with, when they dive and hunt–we know very little about the central community. So we were very excited to run into a group of short-finned pilot whales off Maui on August 1, 2017, at the end of HICEAS leg 1 aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. Using photos we collected during that sighting, we’ll be able to determine if the group we encountered is from the central community, and then use this sighting to increase what we know about that community.

Little is known about the community of short-finned pilot whales that lives around Maui, but by comparing the dorsal fins from animals we encountered on August 1, 2017, to a photo ID catalog of animals around the Hawaiian Islands, we can learn more about where these animals spend their time and with whom they choose to associate. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amy Van Cise

Short-finned pilot whales are found throughout the tropical and temperate oceans of the world, and for centuries, scientists have thought that all short-finned pilot whales were a single species. But in the last couple of decades, a new picture is beginning to develop: scientists have described two different body types, and then shown that animals with different bodies also have different distributions, vocalizations, and DNA codes. They have called these two types “Shiho” (Shee – hoe) and “Naisa” (Nye – sa) type short-finned pilot whales, and think that they might be separate subspecies or even species. The Naisa type lives in the western Pacific, including the Hawaiian Islands, and is easily distinguishable by its square melon (or head).

The square heads above are a dead giveaway for Naisa type short-finned pilot whales, but you don’t have to worry about telling them apart from other types in Hawai‘i, because we only see the Naisa type. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amy Van Cise

All short-finned pilot whales that live in Hawai‘i are the Naisa type, but not all are the same. Short-finned pilot whales in the main Hawaiian Islands are genetically distinct from those in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands or in the open ocean surrounding the islands. And while, with an overall abundance of nearly 20,000 individuals, short-finned pilot whales seem like they are everywhere in the main Hawaiian Islands, they are very difficult to find once you leave sight of land. Once we ventured northwest into the expanded portion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (or Monument), we spent weeks without seeing our predictable neighborhood short-finned pilot whales.

On August 20, 2017, during HICEAS leg 2 on the Sette, we finally caught sight of a group of short-finned pilot whales in the far northwest reaches of the Monument, and it was nothing like what we had seen in the main Hawaiian Islands–these guys were fast. They practically sliced through the water, coming up for only a few breaths before diving again. We launched a small boat from the ship to get better photos and biopsy samples from this group, since we knew it might be one of the few times we ever see them in this remote area. But between their speed, the 6-foot waves, and the impending sunset, we were only able to get a few photos before the whales swam away into the night.

This map of the Hawaiian Islands shows all of the HICEAS survey effort (white lines) through August 22, 2017, with pilot whale sightings shown as blue dots. Most sightings of pilot whales have been close to the main Hawaiian Islands; so far we’ve only found one group of pilot whales far from land. The area shaded in green is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, with the expanded portion of the Monument shown with slightly lighter shading.

One of the greatest challenges of studying marine mammals is having the patience and perseverance to collect data. Each sighting of a species or population gives us just a little more information about their behavior, abundance, or ecology, but some species can take days, weeks, or even months to find. We still have so much to learn about short-finned pilot whales in Hawai‘i–so we will keep looking!

For updates about short-finned pilot whales and all the other species we are seeing, keep following us on the HICEAS website!

All photos taken under research permit.

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Off to a Great Start: the First Leg of HICEAS is Complete

By Erin Oleson
HICEAS Chief Scientist

The Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS) of 2017 is a huge effort. The study area covers over 1.8 million square nautical miles (the entire Hawaiian Exclusive Economic Zone). To comprehensively survey that expansive space, from Hawaiʻi Island in the east to Kure Atoll in the west, takes 2 NOAA ships–the Oscar Elton Sette and the Reuben Lasker–and 187 days at sea over a 5-month period; a total of 7 trips to sea between the 2 ships. This effort began July 6th on the Sette, and the first leg finished up August 2nd. A prolonged effort like HICEAS starts with lots of planning and is maintained by keeping goals front and center and having a little fun along the way. Leg 1 of HICEAS felt a bit like the end for a few of us–so many months of planning and we’re finally at sea–this is the reward. But really, leg 1 was just the beginning.

The HICEAS leg 1 science party—an intrepid group of 15 scientists including mammal and seabird observers, acousticians, unmanned aircraft system (UAS) pilots, and our NOAA Teacher At Sea. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Hung “Doc” Tran

In many ways, the prospect of spending several months on a ship was a bit daunting. As we set sail, the excited, and perhaps nervous, energy was poured into ensuring all the gear and software was working as expected, that the early-survey electronic gremlins were vanquished, and that all of people that make up this effort, from the scientists to the ship’s crew and officers, were working as a team. The early HICEAS jitters were quickly allayed as the data began to stream in, and the natural comraderie of those that have sailed before and those that were new to this adventure. This process was facilitated with the aid of several dozen cans of fizzy water–the ever-present thirst quencher and morale-boosting libation of the HICEAS science team. By the end of the leg, everything was running like a well-oiled machine, ready for the adventure to resume after a short respite on land.


It’s all hands on deck while the visual survey team counts sperm whales. Sperm whale counts continue for 90 minutes to ensure that all animals are counted over the course of the prolonged deep dives. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ernesto Vásquez

A normal day during HICEAS starts before dawn with a CTD (Conductivity-Temperature-Depth) Rosette lowered to 1000 meters depth to measure salinities and temperatures of the ocean in the survey area. Before sunrise, the acoustics team deploys the towed hydrophone array and then, just after sunrise, when there’s enough light to reliably sight groups in the distance, the mammal and seabird visual survey teams begin their effort as we transit along one of many tracklines in our survey design. Throughout the day, as cetacean groups are sighted or heard (using underwater acoustic microphones, or hydrophones), the teams work to identify species, estimate the number of animals in the group, and when conditions are right and the animals allow, collect photographs and tissue samples to support more detailed analyses of population distribution and structure. When sunset comes, the visual and acoustic teams end their searches, and while the onboard Survey Technician casts another CTD, the teams check and summarize the day’s data, process and archive the photos, clean and prep the sampling gear, and prepare to start again the next day. For the acoustics team, the evening CTD just means a shift in operations. As part of the team works to check and archive the day’s data, the other part deploys sonobuoys to listen for baleen whales during the CTD cast. Once the CTD is back on deck, the acoustics team redeploys the towed hydrophone array to listen for chatty cetaceans overnight. At night, many whales and dolphins increase their vocalizations as they forage on a cornucopia of plankton rising from the depths, or on larger fish and cephalopods that follow. While the team sleeps, our gear continues collecting data, never wasting a moment of this effort.

The Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) is a focal region of the 2017 effort, and where we kicked off our HICEAS adventure. The MHI special focus area includes a higher density of effort in our survey design, carried out both along ‘standard’ tracklines–those that extend from the ESE to WNW reaches of the Hawaiian Archipelago–and along random ‘fine-scale’ tracklines that begin or end where we deploy or retrieve Drafting Acoustic Spar Buoy Recorders (DASBRs). The MHI area is home to several island-associated populations of cetaceans, as well as several human activities that may affect those populations. The additional visual and acoustic survey effort in this region is designed to better assess the distribution and density of those island-associated populations and examine the impacts of human activities in their habitat. HICEAS is funded by a multi-agency coalition of partners with interest in ensuring the sustainability of Hawaiʻi’s cetacean populations, including NOAA Fisheries (that’s us!), the agency responsible for assessing Hawaiʻi’s cetaceans under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, and the U.S. Navy and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the agencies responsible for evaluating whether and to what extent the activities they conduct or regulate might impact Hawaiʻi’s cetacean populations.  The multi-agency partnership makes an effort like HICEAS possible, and the joint interest of these agencies in the MHI has spawned the MHI focus area for 2017.

The acoustics team gets ready to deploy a DASBR south of Lanai. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Staci DeSchryver.

The early efforts of the first leg aboard the Sette included several special passive acoustic projects in the MHI focus area. Over the first 12 days, we deployed 8 DASBRs in both leeward and windward waters of the MHI focus area. The DASBRs record ocean sounds, including those produced by cetaceans, for four weeks, providing a rich dataset that can be used to evaluate cetacean distribution and density at a finer scale of time and space than the ship-based portion of the survey could provide alone. The DASBRs are also uniquely suited to locate beaked whales, a clade of deep-diving cetaceans that are often difficult to see in typical Hawaiʻi weather, but also potentially vulnerable to anthropogenic sound. We also recovered and redeployed a High-Frequency Acoustic Recording Package (HARP) off Kona, the location of a long-term acoustic monitoring site that is part of the Pacific Islands Passive Acoustic Network. Redeployment will allow monitoring through the fall, continuing a nearly 11-year record at this location, which has proved invaluable in examining seasonal and inter-annual patterns in cetacean occurrence in this unique Hawaiʻi region. Finally, the Sette crew expertly recovered and redeployed an Ocean Noise Reference Station north of Oʻahu, bringing home two years of calibrated low-frequency ambient noise and cetacean occurrence data that form the beginning of the Hawaiʻi dataset for NOAA’s long-term commitment to monitor and measure ocean noise throughout US waters. The newly-deployed hydrophone will record for another two years.

Aerial images, like of this pair of short-finned pilot whales, are valuable for studying group composition and individual body condition. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Kym Yano and Amanda Bradford

The early portion of the mission also included two days of shake-down flights in predictably calm waters off Kona for our newly-minted hexacopter pilots. The PIFSC Cetacean Research Program has recently invested in the hexacopter as a powerful platform to collect aerial imagery of cetaceans. The images can be used to assess group composition (number of adults, juveniles, and moms with calves) for insights into population demographics, and to measure individual size and shape as a metric of animal health. Our hexacopter team made 14 successful flights, including a number of calibration and practice flights, and several over groups of spinner dolphins and short-finned pilot whales. With these flights, the pilots honed their ability to fly over a group from a distance, evaluate image quality from a small monitor in the boat, and keep up with moving groups while keeping track of parts of the group that have already been photographed. Unfortunately, after leaving Kona, encounters with our target species were never in suitable weather conditions for flights.  We hope for more opportunities to collect images of pilot whales, sperm whales, false killer whales, and Bryde’s whales throughout HICEAS.


HICEAS is designed to survey the entire Hawaii EEZ (light blue line), including the area of the original Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (purple area) and the recent Monument expansion (green area) over 187 days. The red shading is a focus area around the main Hawaiian Islands. Leg 1 aboard the Sette included daytime effort from east of Hawai’i Island to south of Lisianski (white line) and included 46 cetacean sightings (see legend). The remainder of the HICEAS study area will be surveyed over the next six legs.

Cetacean sightings during the first leg of HICEAS aboard the Sette.

All told, during the first 28 days at sea aboard the Sette, we visually and acoustically surveyed 2,330 nmi of daytime trackline extending from east of Hawaiʻi Island to south of Lisianski in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Our visual team sighted 46 groups of cetaceans, while the acoustics team detected 129 vocal groups. Our seabird observers tallied 35 species during the effort, including 148 flocks of feeding seabirds, an important indicator of ocean productivity and ecosystem health. We recovered 3 DASBRs, and (sigh) spent a few days chasing DASBR ghosts–those that got away when their Iridium transmitters stopped telling us where they’d gone [this was likely due to unintended water leaks into the spar buoy (we’ve vanquished that gremlin, and still hope a charitable boater may find our wayward DASBRs and give us a call)]. We lent a hand to our monk seal and marine turtle colleagues with a brief stop at French Frigate Shoals to deliver fuel and supplies for another several weeks of their seal and turtle research on this remote atoll. We were supported by (in our opinion) the most capable crew and supportive command in the NOAA fleet. Apart from the Sette’s usual excellence, we were especially lucky to be supported by LCDR Emily Rose (aka Master Survey Tech) and Electronics Technician Patrick Trevethan who stepped in and kept our CTD operations running smoothly when our original Survey Tech had to leave the ship early. We were also fortunate on leg 1 to have sailed with an excellent NOAA Teacher at Sea, Staci Deschryver, who chronicled her adventures on HICEAS in a fantastic blog series.

The HICEAS adventure resumed August 8 on the Sette for leg 2 and was enhanced on August 17, when the Lasker began its journey west to join the HICEAS effort.  Both ships will continue surveying until September 5, when they will take a short break before departing again. Stay tuned to the HICEAS website for updates from both ships!

Sometimes there’s more to look at than animals. After dodging rain squalls, the visual team is rewarded with a beautiful rainbow. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

All photos taken under research permit.

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Weaned! The lives and questionable choices of Laysan’s youngest seals

By Hope Ronco, Helena Dodge, and Kristen Tovar

The field team at Laysan Island this summer consisted of Hope Ronco, Helena Dodge, and Kristen Tovar. The self-titled Lovely Ladies of Laysan conducted surveys and collected monk seal population assessment data, but some of the highlights of their season were watching weaned pups learn and grow.

Laysan Island has approximately 250 resident Hawaiian monk seals, which is the most of all the islands and atolls in the archipelago. When we arrived on island, one of our primary goals was to identify all moms and nursing pups. This summer at Laysan, there were 28 Hawaiian monk seals born. They are, without a doubt, the cutest members of the species. When they are born, they weigh between 30-40lbs and are covered in fuzzy black fur. As they nurse and grow, they eventually molt off the dark fur, leaving behind a silvery gray coat. After 5-7 weeks, they have enough fat stores to hopefully sustain them while they learn to survive. Their moms depart, leaving the newly weaned pups to explore and learn how to be a seal, and, like all young ones going out into the big world, occasionally make some unfortunate choices.

Anyone for a SAND-wich? When other objects aren’t around to play with, why not try a mouthful of sand?

Some of our favorite moments from this season were watching weaned pups play in the shallows and keiki pools around Laysan. Weaned pups are a bit like puppies at first- they chew on everything. Sand seemed to be a favorite toy at Laysan this season. Luckily, there is a plethora of sand available! Other toys include shells, rocks, algae, and even some marine debris like plastic bottles and tires.

This playing is also a part of how they learn to hunt, and the slowest prey around Laysan seems to be sea cucumbers. However, when threatened, sea cucumbers expel their insides, which looks like white spaghetti. As you can clearly see in the picture below, this weaned pup got a sticky surprise. Luckily the sea cucumber insides dry and fall off, leaving the weaned pups as good as new and hopefully with a foraging lesson learned.

The sticky guts of a sea cucumber all over this pups face is an indication of some “successful” foraging. We don’t think they actually eat the sea cucumbers, but it is good training looking for food on the ocean floor.

When they aren’t learning to forage, weaned pups spend quite a bit of their time sleeping. This ball of large line washed into the shallows at Laysan this summer, and a weaned pup decided it would be a comfy place for a nap. While this looks adorable, marine debris is a huge threat to Hawaiian monk seals, which as a species has one of the highest rate of entanglements out of all marine mammals. Luckily, this pup was simply sleeping and not entangled. To ensure no curious critters could get ensnared in the ball, we encouraged the pup off the line and then attempted to pull it up onto the beach. Even as we struggled to get the line out of the water, other seals continued to approach and check it out. We were able to beach the line, but it took a team of 11 scientists to eventually roll it out of the water and away from interested seals.

We all agree that it’s been extremely rewarding to be working towards recovering the population of endangered monk seals. We look forward to seeing these goofy weaned pups next year as experienced, spunky juveniles!











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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!

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The Root of Everything: Teamwork and the Science of Counting Seals

Darren and his three campmates, Megan, Alix, and Caroline, spent their summer months at Pearl and Hermes Reef counting and saving monk seals.  Darren shares a little bit about how we go about counting seals and estimating the population.  This data and population estimate serves as the foundation of EVERYTHING we are able to do to help save monk seals. But none if it could be done without dedicated people working together.

Our goal, above all else, is to recover the monk seal population. The first step to recovery is having a deep understanding of population size (the total number of seals), and trends (increasing or decreasing), so you know what is working, and just as importantly, what is not, in terms of conservation actions. Mark-recapture is a long-standing method of counting wildlife populations. In species with large populations the idea is usually to mark a portion of the population in some way (maybe tags, bleach marks, shaving a part of the fur) and release them back into the population to mix.  Some time later, more animals from that population are recaptured.  By using the percentage of the recaptured animals that were marked versus unmarked, scientists can estimate population sizes.  With monk seals we have the amazing opportunity to recapture nearly the entire population. This opens a treasure trove of information about the seal population. We not only get a good estimate of overall population size, but also insight into valuable and interesting information such as how well animals survive at different locations, how well different aged animals survive (like juveniles versus adults), number of pups born, inter-atoll movements, and so much more.

To achieve this, two things must happen: the animals must be ‘marked’, and then over the years the animal is ‘recaptured’ with each sighting (as opposed to physically handling them). A ‘mark’ is just a way of saying that the animal needs a persistent and unique marking that identifies them as an individual. In this case ‘recapture’ simply means to positively identify the individuals marked initially.  We do this in primarily two ways. The first method is to tag the animals when they wean with two flipper tags. The second way is to identify individual animals with photos of scars and marks that they have naturally collected throughout their life. Using scars is problematic in young animals that have not had time to collect the wounds that an adult usually acquires with the passage of time.  But some seals never get discernible marks and, over time, animals can lose their tags.  So sometimes scientists must tag, or retag adult animals, to ensure they are captured in our estimates.

The last two times I was at Pearl and Hermes the camp was operated by three people. In the last few years we have added a fourth person to the team in order to produce a safer and more productive camp. This change has also allowed us to address a growing problem for the Pearl and Hermes population of seals.  Our older animals were all losing their flipper tags and our ability to monitor the population was starting to degrade, but an expanded team could help fix that.  Handling adult animals is an activity that is only allowed with four or more qualified people.

Handling large animals has the tendency to bring people to their peak focus. If getting up close and personal with a 500 lb animal doesn’t make everything else in the world fall away, I don’t know what will. For me personally, a big highlight this season was getting to tag some of these animals with our team. We saved these tagging efforts until late in the season when our team was working seamlessly together and everyone had the experience necessary to do the work safely.  This year we had an exceptionally bright and talented group. A good mix of experience, brains, and some muscle to back it up. Tagging these seals has important scientific value as explained earlier, but there was a deeper meaning for the team, as it was a challenge that drew the team together, and how that camaraderie lasted after. I think it was a great reminder for our team that a small group pointed in the same direction is capable of so much more than an individual. It wasn’t simply that we were able to successfully tag these impressive animals, but that we had the focus, communication, and trust that it takes to execute a mission like that safely. There are few things in my life that I enjoy more than working on a team that operates as a unit; where a nod, a look, or a tap on the shoulder communicates more than a ten minute discussion would with other people. This season, after a lot of hard work, we got there. It trickled down into everything we did. As an individual we fail, but as a team we succeed. In my opinion that is a successful season, and I can only hope for more like it in the future.

Darren Roberts

Pearl and Hermes Reef

May 2017- August 2017

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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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