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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Fattened Up on Fish-Popcicles: How to Rehabilitate a Hawaiian Monk Seal

by Stacie Robinson

Start the day thawing and weighing out fish for the day.
Add vitamins to each seal’s first fish.
8:00am feed the seals, wash the dishes.
Entertain the animals, maybe with a sprinkler or a delicious frozen fish-cicle (but avoid focus on people).
2:00pm feed the seals, wash the dishes. Scrub pen floors. Do a lot of admin.
8:00pm feed the seals, wash the dishes.
Log each seal’s appetite and behavior into the medical records system.
Clean up and get ready for tomorrow.
Repeat… 262 times.

That’s how the dedicated staff at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola (The Healing Sea) Hawaiian monk seal rehabilitation facility made the dramatic transformation you see in Niho‘ole and other young monk seals in need.

Niho‘ole (a Hawaiian name meaning “toothless,” because he was weaned so prematurely that his teeth hadn’t even grown in yet) was in a sad state with virtually no chance of survival when NOAA field staff picked him up on Laysan Island at the end of the 2016 Assessment and Recovery Camp season last August. Now, we brought Niho‘ole back to Laysan, fat and healthy!

Niho-to-water2

Niho‘ole taking to the water after his release on Laysan Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Poor juvenile survival is one of key contributors to population decline in endangered Hawaiian monk seals. Reasons may range from pups weaning prematurely to young animals getting outcompeted for food. But the result is that when young animals fail to thrive, they can’t contribute to the population. So, since 2014, NOAA and its partners at The Marine Mammal Center have been working hard to help struggling juvenile seals through rehabilitation at Ke Kai Ola, in Kailua-Kona on Hawai‘i Island. After rehabilitative care, the young animals are healthy and have the fat reserves to re-enter the wild population with a fighting chance.

One of several figures behind this transformative care at Ke Kai Ola is Deb Wickham, Veterinarian Technician and Operations Manager. Deb joined us on our mission aboard the NOAA Ship Sette to bring 2016’s young patients back home.

Sette_Deb

Ke Kai Ola Operations Manager, Deb Wickham, on the Sette taking her patients back home to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

We asked Deb, “What are the big differences taking the rehab show from Ke Kai Ola to the road (or water)?” No, it’s not the round-the-clock watches to be sure the seals stay safe and comfortable on the ship’s deck. No, it’s not the amount of seal poo to be hosed down and cleaned up. The biggest difference is the challenge of getting seals to eat fish on the ship! Deb explains, “They want to eat in the water. It’s just more foreign, more difficult to get the animals to eat in a small enclosure with just a small water tub while we’re in transit.” Luckily (and by design), these seals are in great shape and can even stand to miss a meal or two if their appetite is down on the ship. Even so, this well-seasoned rehabber has some tricks up her sleeve–who wouldn’t be enticed by fish-cicles?!

Deb enjoyed her time on the ship and was very happy to get to travel full circle with these seals and see them return home! Her dream is to have more opportunities to rehabilitate more seals and get them back home in a timely manner.

FFS Deb

Healthy and home – Mea Ola and Ha‘aheo are in a pen awaiting their release at French Frigate Shoals. Ke Kai Ola’s Deb Wickham watches over her patients, excited to see them back home (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

And the work continues–no sooner are last year’s healthy rehabilitated seals dropped off, our field staff have already identified animals in need of help this year. A prematurely-weaned pup and an underweight three-year-old came home with us on the Sette and are now getting settled in at Ke Kai Ola. Deb knows it will be a challenge to get these animals in good shape in time for the return cruise this August. But at Ke Kai Ola, that’s just the sort of challenge they can handle.

Luckily Deb has a soft spot for the older seals, like our three-year-old pup. She says they always seem like the hardest cases coming in, but it’s rewarding to see how much changes as they get healthier. We look forward to seeing the turn around in these two youngsters!

ffs-rehab-seals

Two young seals in a pen at French Frigate Shoals, awaiting transit to Ke Kai Ola (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Hawaiian monk seals and pathogens: An ounce of prevention

by Michelle Barbieri

Ever wondered how to reboot a propane-powered refrigerator? Flipping it upside-down is actually a viable strategy. This is the latest challenge overcome by our remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands field teams in the initial stages of the summer 2017 Assessment and Recovery Camp’s monk seal vaccination program.

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Map of the Hawaiian Archipelago with the Northwest Hawaiian Islands outlined.

Getting vaccinated for us humans usually means a quick trip to the doctor. We take our pets to the vet for their “shots.” For some wildlife, rabies vaccines are distributed in bait across the continent. But what about vaccinating marine wildlife, especially those that live in remote locations and may travel hundreds of miles? The hurdles are high, the path is uncharted, and no matter how much you plan and prepare, there are going to be times when flipping refrigerators upside-down is the vital solution.

Kitchen_tent

Simple living in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands – the kitchen tent at Pearl and Hermes Reef field camp (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s vaccination efforts began in 2016, vaccinating seals on Oahu and Kauai against morbillivirus in order to prevent an outbreak that could be catastrophic for the species. To our knowledge, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal has never suffered from a morbillivirus outbreak, but recently, researchers have found other species of morbillivirus in Hawaii and the greater Pacific region. We know the monk seals are naïve (unexposed) to morbillivirus from decades of disease surveillance in the species. While that’s a good thing, we’d like to keep it that way!  When morbillivirus outbreaks have occurred in other marine mammals, the results were rapid and deadly, killing tens of thousands of seals and dolphins in Europe and North America.  With only about 1400 left in the world, the endangered population of Hawaiian monk seals can’t take such losses.

Recently, researchers developed mathematical models to estimate how an outbreak would spread if morbillivirus were introduced, say from another seal species or a dog. The results confirmed our fears–the monk seal population could be devastated. Vaccination is a proactive way to protect the monk seal, rather than waiting until the virus shows up to treat it.

Seal Population chart

What would happen in a seal population facing a rapidly spreading morbillivirus outbreak without vaccination? The red bump shows the peak of infected seals, the green line shows the rapid accumulation of seals “removed” from the susceptible seals (either after overcoming infection or succumbing to it).

Over the last 10 years, a vaccine (made for ferrets!) was evaluated for use in captive seals, including Hawaiian monk seals. After years of testing, planning, and practice, the vaccine was given to the first wild monk seals in 2016. Each seal needs two shots, about four weeks apart. Those efforts protected most of the seals around Kauai and Oahu and represented the start of the world’s first-ever species-wide vaccination program in wild marine mammals.

Now, in 2017, we are expanding the monk seal vaccination program to protect seals in the distant Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But launching this initiative across a span of more than 1,000 miles on remote, low-lying sandy islands and atolls is an entirely unique process with a lot of logistics to figure out. We’ve had to think of everything from propane fridges to keep vaccines cold, to min-max thermometers to monitor their temperatures in the field, to PVC pipe cases to keep sand out of syringes (which we fasten into “pole syringes”). We even modified our monk seal databases to track the vaccinated seals for the rest of their lives. We also need to vaccinate a LOT of seals to make a meaningful dent in the susceptibility of the monk seal population. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, monk seal populations are larger and denser than we’re used to in the main Hawaiian Islands. A disease would have more opportunities to jump between each seal and spread rapidly; therefore, we must vaccinate many more seals on these remote islands in order to achieve the same level of protection as the main islands.

Nihau seals

Many seals share the beach on Nihoa Island. Denser seal populations with lots of contact between animals are common in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

For nearly two months, field staff trained and practiced safely administering injections, and are now beginning to vaccinate seals. It’s just the first week of field camps and already 12 seals received vaccines. Another 25 seals have been vaccinated at Midway Atoll during short-term staff deployments. There’s still a long way to go, but we are well on our way to protecting these precious animals against a deadly outbreak.

Laysan_vaccinations

Vaccination mission at Laysan: Helena preps the pole syringe with a vaccine dose; Kristen sneaks up on a sleeping seal to carefully deliver a vaccine; Hope runs from another after successfully vaccinating (and surprising!) the seal. Note: a syringe on a long pole is the least intrusive way that scientists can give vaccinations to seals for their protection. It’s important to keep your distance from seals. (Photos: NOAA Fisheries)

The People Aboard NOAA’s ARC: Teams Pearl & Hermes and Kure

Get to know the bold field biologists stationed on remote islands for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Assessment & Recovery Camps.

Every year (since the 1980s!), the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program has deployed camps in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to monitor and help recover the population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals. These assessment and recovery camps, or ARCs, are deployed from large NOAA research vessels. Large vessels are necessary because they need to transport everything that field staff at five camps will require for their three to five month season in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. You can follow the latest deployment cruise on our Story Map. We thought it would be nice for you to get to know the dedicated biologists of our monk seal ARCs and will introduce them over a series of three blogs.

MAP_PHR

Map of Pearl and Hermes Atoll.

Team Pearl and Hermes

With over 450 square miles of coral reef and less than 1/4 square mile of total land area, Pearl and Hermes Atoll is dominated by vivid blues (rumored even to have inspired paint colors). The Pearl and Hermes team spends a lot of time out in the cerulean waters traveling between islets to survey the atoll’s seal population.

 

PHR_Team

Pearl & Hermes Team: (L-R) Caroline Cummings, Alix Gibson, Darren Roberts, Megan Roberts (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Darren Roberts (6th season) – Now a hardened field biologist alternating seasons between the NWHI and Antarctica, Darren’s first degree was actually in music theory, and he has even performed at Carnegie Hall.  We’re waiting to hear his theme song for camp Pearl & Hermes!

Megan Roberts (3rd season) – Growing up in rural Idaho, Megan didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing till she was 16.  No wonder she adjusts so well to life in this remote island camp!

Caroline Cummings (1st season) – Caroline recently completed her Master’s degree studying seals in Scotland, she also learned to love kilts and beer.  She’s excited to learn about another seal species.

Alix Gibson (1st season) – Alix has been nurturing marine life at many levels – she’s got rare skills in raising moon jellyfish.  This summer she’ll gain a whole new skill set to help monk seals!

PHR_camp

Pearl and Hermes camp, just 12 feet above sea level at Southeast Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Teamwork

Teamwork! The monk seal camp team and staff from the State of Hawaii’s Department of Forestry and Wildlife pitch in for the hard work of hefting water and other gear to set up field camp (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Team Kure Atoll

MAP_KUR

Map of Kure Atoll.

The farthest point in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Kure Atoll is home to an old U.S. Coast Guard post turned field camp. The Kure monk seal team is small, but they enjoy sharing the camp with members the State of Hawaii’s Department of Forestry and Wildlife team.

Ilana Nimz (4th season) – Ilana claims she can’t smell – I guess that means she’ll be collecting the scat samples this season. Besides being a talented scientist, Ilana is also quite the artist. She turns glass balls, woods, and any other debris she can get her hands on into works of art.

David Golden (1st season) – David started honing his outdoor skills as an eagle scout.  Hmmm we should probably make some merit badges for all the way these field biologists can save seals over the course of a season (disentanglement, antibiotic injections, vaccinations, reuniting moms and pups, moving pups away from shark predation, and more!)

KUR_Team

Kure Team: (L-R) David Golden, Ilana Nimz (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

KUR_camp

Monk seal camp at Kure Atoll, one of the only monk seal inland camps and it rests in the center of Green Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

The People Aboard NOAA’s ARC: Teams Laysan and Lisianski

Get to know the bold field biologists stationed on remote islands for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Assessment & Recovery Camps.

Every year (since the 1980s!), the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program has deployed camps in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to monitor and help recover the population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals. These assessment and recovery camps, or ARCs, are deployed from large NOAA research vessels. Large vessels are necessary because they need to transport everything that field staff at five camps will require for their three to five month season in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. You can follow the latest deployment cruise on our Story Map. We thought it would be nice for you to get to know the dedicated biologists of our monk seal ARCs and will introduce them over a series of three blogs.

Map_Laysan

Map of Laysan Island.

Team Laysan

Famous for endangered birds (Laysan duck, Laysan finch) and historical ecological destruction (island-denuding rabbits, guano mining), Laysan Island is also currently home to one of the most robust Hawaiian monk seal subpopulations. Days at Laysan can be long and hot and a scientist doing a complete survey has to make a roughly six-mile walk in the sand. They chalk up a lot of miles saving monk seals.

Team_Laysan_1

Team Laysan about to embark: (L-R) Helena Dodge, Hope Ronco, Kristen Tovar (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Hope Ronco (4th  season) – Having spent many seasons in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with NOAA’s monk seal camps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hope has decided that her favorite smell is the scent of albatross (just adult albatross, not chicks, albatross chicks smell like “fish barf” according to Hope).

Helena Dodge (1st season) – Helena once happened to join a road trip across Australia’s outback with two women she’d never met and they enjoyed great adventures. Now Helena looks forward to adventures on Laysan Island with two more women she just met, her fantastic camp mates!

Kristen Tovar (1st season) – Monk seals are a big scale up for Kristen who previously studied invertebrates. For her senior thesis, she actually milked cone snails. (We had to google it.)

Laysan Offload

Laysan team settles in to their new island home (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Map_Lisianski

Map of Lisianski Island.

Team Lisianski

Lisianski Island – population two. This tiny island is just the tip of a vast coral bank. Lisianski is easily traversable and hosts the smallest camp population in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Every year growing Tournefortia shrubs make camp a little different to come home to.

Team_Lisianski_1

Team Lisianski about to embark: (L-R) Brittany Dolan, Keelan Barcina (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Keelan Barcina (3rd  season) – Keelan began his monk seal career as a literal monk seal for his 6th grade play. He has since moved up to monk seal camp leader. He had to leave the costume at home as it didn’t pass quarantine inspection.

Brittany Dolan (2nd season) – The camp’s eternal optimist, Brittany still secretly believes in unicorns and dragons. Thankfully, dedicated biologists like Brittany help keep Hawaiian monk seals from going the way of imaginary or forgotten creatures.

Team_Lisianski_2

Team Lisianski – proud sole residents of Lisianski Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).