A day in the life of the East Island Exiles

How we stayed sane on the smallest island field camp in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

by Marylou Staman

Imagine this: You wake up on a cot, under a canvas tent, and blink your eyes, wondering where you are. As you remove your ear plugs, the dull sound of birds nesting under your tent becomes a cacophony of screams, honks, and wails, and the afternoon sunlight streaming through gaps in the tent walls burns your eyes. It’s hot, you’re exhausted, and yet you smile, because you finally remember that you’re on East Island, and in the middle of the greatest adventure of your life.

Monk seals and turtles often basked together on East Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

East Island, our home for the majority of our summer up at French Frigate Shoals in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is only about 2000 feet long and 400 feet wide. Because of its size and our initial impressions from satellite images, we originally dubbed our future home a “sand bar,” devoid of life. But upon closer inspection we found the island to be rich with birds, Hawaiian monk seals, vegetation, and of course, sea turtles. Even the beautiful turquoise water surrounding the island, our front yard, provided us with daily sightings of schooling trevally, foraging eagle rays, and huge tiger sharks, patrolling the shallow lagoon waters for disoriented albatross fledglings that landed on the water while learning how to fly. With the gorgeous scenery and wildlife keeping us company every day, it was easy to fall in love with our tiny island home.

Marylou, Jan Willem, and Alex (L-R) pose on their camp “front porch” on East Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

But what brought us to East Island? My husband, Jan Willem Staman, and I, along with our colleague Alex Reininger, made up the three-person Sea Turtle Research Team in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with the NOAA Fisheries Marine Turtle Biology and Assessment Program. It was our job this summer to set up a camp on East Island and study the hundreds of sea turtles that come to this small island to reproduce. While it is not known why approximately 96% of Hawaiian green sea turtle nesting takes place at French Frigate Shoals, we are learning more and more about this phenomenon with each passing field season. This season, we identified 871 individual male and female turtles with a small white number we gently painted onto their shells. On East Island alone we counted 413 females that came up to nest this season, more than last year’s 87 but less than the banner year of nearly 900 in 2014 (because turtles nest every few years, every population has natural seasonal highs and lows depending on which turtles decide to make the migration and nest). Along with numbering each turtle, we also gave each one small flipper tags and took their measurements to track their growth. Since researchers have been tagging in Hawaii for several decades already, it was exciting to find turtles that had tags from 10, 20, and even over 30 years ago!

Sea turtle researcher Jan Willem Staman counts the eggs of a nesting female turtle (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Marylou Staman).

Because sea turtles nest at night, we had to adjust our sleeping schedule to make sure that we would be awake when the turtles were most active. That meant that our work day actually started around 4pm in the afternoon. Just like in the main Hawaiian Islands, the sea turtles at French Frigate Shoals would haul out onto the beach during the day to bask, or rest in the sun. From 4-6pm we would walk around East Island and record all of the turtles we saw based on the white numbers we wrote on their shells. On our very first day on East Island, we walked around the island and counted 229 basking sea turtles! However, that number steadily declined throughout the summer as more and more females finished laying their eggs and returned to the main Hawaiian Islands. Those females, with our white numbers still on their shells, have now been seen back around the main islands and have become a part of a unique citizen scientist project recently announced by NOAA! (Learn more: By the Numbers, Green Sea Turtles in Hawaii.)

The sea turtle research team didn’t need headlamps to see the turtles crawling up to nest when the moon was up (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

After completing our afternoon survey, we would spend a few hours transcribing the data and eating dinner before starting our night survey around 9pm. While in theory walking around a deserted island at night may sound spooky, there was actually so much going on that we didn’t have time to get creeped out. In addition to the dozens of nesting sea turtles crawling out each night, we also encountered sleeping monk seals and restless birds, all lit up by the most impressive display of stars I have ever seen. When the moon was up we didn’t even need headlamps, and when the moon was set, the darkness allowed the stars to light up the whole sky instead. We spent so much time on our night surveys looking for turtles on the ground, that I’d occasionally remind myself to look up, and the night sky always took my breath away.

Sea turtle #252 digs a nest in front of the East Island camp (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

When the sun began to rise on the horizon, it meant it was time to do one last lap around the island and head back to the tents. After 8-9 hours of walking laps around our sandy island, the biggest and completely unanticipated challenge we faced each day was still to come: trying to sleep! Between the loud birds and the hot sun, sleeping more than 2-3 hours in a row became a notable achievement around camp and something I do not take for granted now that we’re back here in Honolulu.

The stars shone a little brighter over East Island, where the only other light came from red headlamps the researchers wore during surveys (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

Jan Willem and I returned to Honolulu at the end of August and have been busy entering all of the data we compiled over the summer. In order to collect another month of nest data, Alex bravely stayed behind on East Island alone, with daily check-ins from the nearby monk seal camp on Tern Island. Sitting behind a desk in a cubicle is definitely not as adventure-like as carefully sneaking up behind nesting turtles to count their eggs, but we do value the data and enjoy the memories it elicits.

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!

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

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.

 

Rocky and Kaimana

Jessie Bohlander

On June 29th, 2017, for reasons we will never know, Rocky (RH58), a 17 year old female Hawaiian monk seal decided to have her tenth pup at one of her favorite haul out sites on Oahu: Kaimana Beach, on the easternmost end of Waikiki. Rocky has already had nine pups, all at Larsen’s Beach on the north shore of Kauai. When Rocky is not nursing a pup, she is seen around the east and south shores of Oahu but has never had a pup there. We knew that there would come a day when a seal would decide to pup on Waikiki Beach, and with that day would come a huge set of challenges. What we did not know was that this little seal would have an impact on the entire world and become an ambassador for her species in just 43 days. This is the story of Rocky and her pup Kaimana from the viewpoint of Jessie Bohlander, a member of the Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program:

On June 29, 2017, I was at a training with a group of coworkers when my boss checked his phone and let out an exasperated groan. A pup had been born in Waikiki. Since I’m not directly involved in pupping events, I didn’t think much of it, besides feeling glad that another pup was born this year. Over the next few days, staff from NOAA worked with the Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR) group, the State of Hawaii, and Hawaii Ocean Safety to ensure that Rocky and her pup were given enough space on the beach and that the beach users were educated about the seals. This happens with all pups born in areas that the public can access, but there was a particular concern about human safety at Kaimana Beach. Any monk seal can be aggressive, but in the cases where a monk seal attacked a person, the seals were all adult females protecting their pups. Put a 600-pound protective carnivorous mama on a 500-foot stretch of beach with anywhere from dozens to hundreds of sunbathers, paddlers, snorkelers, swimmers, surfers, and kids in the water, and you have the perfect recipe for danger. It is a completely natural behavior and as a new mom myself, I can understand the fierce maternal instinct to protect one’s offspring at any cost.

Rocky nursing her one-day-old pup at Kaimana Beach.

As Rocky’s pup grew bigger over the next few weeks, the pair began spending more time in the water. A local news agency, Honolulu Civil Beat, also started streaming a live feed video of Kaimana Beach on their Facebook page. The first day I watched it, a blue beach ball floated into view and drifted along the waterline towards Rocky. She raised her head, vocalized at the ball, and then attacked it, popping it with her teeth. The deflated ball sank into the sand. It was a great demonstration of what Rocky would do if anyone or anything got close to her pup. A few days later, Rocky showed her protective mama side again. Kaiwi (RK96), another adult female monk seal who was molting in the area, swam close to shore where Rocky and the pup were resting. Rocky bolted into the water after Kaiwi and chased her from the area. Many people posted videos of the event on YouTube and Facebook, and even a local TV station, KHON, aired it.

Rocky defends her pup from a wayward beach ball.

About a week after the pup was born, NOAA staff (in partnership with Honolulu Civil Beat and HMAR) began streaming weekly live “pupdates” to let everyone know how Rocky and the pup were doing, what to expect as the pup grew older, the dangers of getting too close to Rocky, and to answer questions from the hundreds of viewers who would tune in each week.

Dr. Charles Littnan and Aliza Milette-Winfree doing a weekly “pupdate” live on Honolulu Civil Beat.

During the first few pupdates, two of the most common questions were about the pup’s gender and name. While most people were simply curious and wanted to know which pronoun to use, the gender of the pup has real implications for the future of monk seals in Waikiki. When monk seals are ready to pup, they return to the same beach on which they were born about 60% of the time. So, if this pup was a female, we knew that the chances of having another pup in Waikiki in a few years would increase and we would again be faced with all of the challenges and dangers that we are now facing with Rocky and her pup.

The sex of the pup was soon confirmed. On July 14th, we held an impromptu “gender reveal party” at the NOAA office, complete with ice cream cake. As the newest mother in the monk seal program, I had the honor of cutting the cake. I sliced into the cake to reveal the light pink strawberry ice cream filling. Rocky’s pup was A GIRL! The online community had begun to unofficially refer to the pup as “Kaimana” because of her birthplace. On July 25th, native Hawaiian practitioners and volunteers from HMAR who watched the pair from dawn to dusk officially named the pup Kaimana.

The Kaimana gender reveal party revealed the pup was a girl!

The live stream continued every day during all daylight hours. As Kaimana grew bigger, so did the number of visitors to the beach and online videos. People across the world visited the Honolulu Civil Beat Facebook and YouTube channels to watch Rocky and Kaimana. There were always people hungry to see more of Rocky and Kaimana, waiting for them to come back to shore after their daily swims to watch their interactions and to speculate through the live chats about what they were seeing. At NOAA, we also tuned in to the live stream. I have done my share of fieldwork and have spent many days, weeks, and months observing monk seals, but it was amazing to be able to see what they were doing hour by hour and day by day. I often found myself entrenched in the comments and live chat that went along with the streaming video. So many people had so many questions about Rocky and Kaimana as well as Hawaiian monk seals in general. I loved tuning in to the live pupdates each week to hear how my colleagues responded to the many great questions.

On Friday, July 28th, I was at home rocking my 9-month-old son to sleep while cruising Facebook on my phone. An alert popped up from Honolulu Civil Beat for a live video titled “Rocky is in search of her pup Kaimana who seems to have gone missing.” I clicked on the link and watched (along with hundreds of other viewers) Rocky hauling out on the beach alone and vocalizing with Kaimana nowhere in sight. A few moments later I got a text from our veterinarian, Michelle, asking if anyone was available to go down to the beach and see if we could help locate Kaimana. My son was just drifting off to sleep in my lap so the best I could do was watch the live stream and follow the text string from my coworkers who went down to the beach to try to locate Kaimana. Eventually she was found in the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial pool, an old salt water swimming pool adjacent to Kaimana beach that has been closed to the public for many years due to its dilapidated state. Before too long, our team was able to get access to the Natatorium and, luckily, Kaimana was hauled out in an area where the team was able to get to her. With the help of custodians, they moved her back to the beach where she was reunited with Rocky.

The final text of the string read “Liz confirmed that pup and mom are successfully reunited! Woohooooooo! First ever monk seal response on live feed. You guys all rock.” Indeed, that is when I realized we had entered a new era. Very often, our activities receive a lot of attention and press and we are always happy and eager to be transparent and informative about what we do with seals. But never before had one of our seal responses been broadcast live for the world to see.

The text from veterinarian, Dr. Michelle Barbieri, confirming that Kaimana had been reunited with her mom.

 

 

Over the next several weeks, Kaimana and Rocky were back in the natatorium two more times. Each time, they found their way out without assistance. There had already been discussion about what the plan was for Kaimana once Rocky weaned and left her, which typically happens between five and seven weeks after birth. The incidents in the natatorium sharpened a sentiment held by many that Waikiki may not be a good place for Kaimana to remain once alone, and served to increase the urgency of a decision. The risk of growing up in Waikiki was that she was very likely to have more interactions with people than seals. People playing with or feeding her could lead to behaviors that could be dangerous for the public such as biting, holding people under water, or preventing people from exiting the water. We have seen seals become too accustomed to people in the past, which usually leads to relocation of the seal to a very remote place or captivity for the sake of human safety. We did not want that to be Kaimana’s fate.

We knew that Rocky nursed her previous pups for 39 to 42 days, so we had a pretty good idea of when to expect Rocky’s departure and when we needed to have a plan in place. A team of experienced monk seal biologists and managers conducted a thorough risk assessment to determine whether and where to move Kaimana. On August 8th, a press conference was held to announce that once Rocky weaned, Kaimana would be moved to a location elsewhere on Oahu, keeping her away from the risks she would face in Waikiki with the ever-tempting Natatorium, the frolicking tourists, and upcoming canoe and paddleboard races. We had selected a few suitable locations and were going to make a final decision based on conditions on the day of the translocation.

The press conference announcing that Kaimana would be moved once she was weaned was live streamed from Kaimana Beach.

When a pup weans from its mother, our standard procedure is to attach tags to its flipper, implant a passive integrated transponder tag (similar to microchips used in domestic dogs and cats), and measure the pup’s length and girth. For Kaimana, we also wanted to apply a satellite tag so we could find her when she wasn’t in view, and give her a vaccination against morbillivirus. When planning any wild animal handling,  safety is the top priority over any data objective. We carefully plan out every detail ahead of time to ensure that everything goes smoothly for us and the seal. We did not know exactly when Rocky would wean Kaimana, but we knew that when we were sure Rocky was gone, we needed to make the move as soon as possible. The faster we were done, the sooner Kaimana could start acclimating to her new environment.. Many experiences translocating weaned pups had shown us that the sooner she was moved, the more likely she would be to imprint on the new location.

After the press conference, there was a lot of speculation in the live stream chats about when the pair would wean, when the translocation would happen, and where Kaimana would be taken. I found myself logging on first thing each morning to check if the pair were still together. I realized how accustomed I had become to having this direct link to Rocky and Kaimana.

On August 11th, when Kaimana was 43 days old, I returned from a meeting at around 2 p.m. and opened the live stream on YouTube. The video showed Kaimana by herself in the water and the live chat was moving quickly. Was it the moment everyone had been watching out for? Was Rocky really gone?

Rocky didn’t return that afternoon, so we started planning Kaimana’s translocation the next morning. Most of the team met at Kaimana Beach early in the morning, but my role was to assess a proposed translocation site to see if the weather and local conditions were good before the final move. That site was not chosen, so I watched on YouTube, along with hundreds of other viewers, as our team quickly scooped Kaimana up in the stretcher net and carried her to a cage in the back of a flatbed truck. She was then taken to her new home. The team said the tagging went perfectly and she was acclimating to her new home as well as we could have hoped for! Her shiny new red flipper tags gave Kaimana a new scientific ID: RJ58. I watched our staff updates and the videos posted by Honolulu Civil Beat of Kaimana in her new home, feeling proud to have been a part of the team.

The NOAA team moving Kaimana from Kaimana Beach on August 12, 2017.

Later that afternoon, a member of the Rocky and Kaimana Facebook group posted a beautiful picture of Kaimana on her last day at her birth beach. The caption read:

“I would like to say mahalo to all my island Aunties, Uncles, Keiki, and [Kupuna] for sharing a little bit of time, aloha, and overwhelming support over these last few weeks. They say everything happens for a reason, so I will let you in on a little secret, mama Rocky having me here at Kaimana beach and not on a quiet beach on Kauai was not an accident. I was born on Kaimana Beach to bring awareness to Hawaii and the world about us, the Hawaiian Monk Seal, and as you can see, it worked. For the time being this is my aloha to you.”

 

This post perfectly summed up the legacy that Kaimana has started by being the catalyst to spread the word about Hawaiian monk seals to the world. We could not have done it this way without Rocky and Kaimana. As one of my coworkers said, many of us thought that this pup in Waikiki was one of our worst fears come true, but these seals have made an impact on people far and wide in a way that we could not have done on our own.

Thank you Kaimana for helping to teach the world about your species, spreading the Aloha in a way that only a little seal can do, and helping to remind me why I do what I do.

All of the videos and groups referred to in this post can be found at:

Honolulu Civil Beat YouTube Channel:

https://www.youtube.com/user/civilbeat/featured

Honolulu Civil Beat Facebook Page:

https://www.facebook.com/pg/civilbeat/videos/?ref=page_internal

Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program Facebook Page:

https://www.facebook.com/pg/HMSRP/videos/?ref=page_internal