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!

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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.

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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!

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

24 days, 900 buckets, 4 seals,…

It is the end of another Hawaiian monk seal field season.  The research cruise to pick up all of our field teams has returned, and our Chief Scientist for the cruise, Stacie Robinson, reflects on the experience.

…580 water jugs, 50 pelican cases, 30 liquid nitrogen dewars, 22 pallet tubs, 6 boats, and plenty of odds and ends.  But, hey, who’s counting?  It takes a lot of gear to make a safe and successful field camp in the most remote islands in the Pacific!  And it takes a lot of help to get it all packed and hauled back to Honolulu at the end of the field season!  Huge thanks to the NOAA ship Sette crew and officers (unsung heroes for sure) for another very successful monk seal camp pick-up cruise!

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Hoisting a seemingly endless number of buckets from camp – to small boat – to ship – to home. (NMFS Photo)

Hawaiian monk seal assessment and recovery camps have been deployed since the 1980s.  By now, it’s a pretty well-oiled machine (even an inexperienced chief scientist can mostly just keep watch as the machine works – thank goodness!).  And yet, the routine never quite becomes mundane.  Every day on the cruise, the monk seal team seems to be confronted with some new challenge.  And every year, the team finds ways to throw in a few curve balls for the ship (mission changes, emergencies activities, and more), and the vessel crews find ways to keep batting a thousand!

Sometime even routine gear loading from camps has its challenges. For example: Aug 13, stop #1 at Pearl and Hermes Camp: “Hey guys, today we just need to be in three in places at once – pick up marine debris from multiple islands across the Pearl and Hermes atoll, find a seal that needs to be tagged, load up some gear, and get done in time to deploy an acoustic device before making our transit 16 hours to the next site.”  Done!

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One small step in island clean-up. One giant bag to pull off the beach! (NMFS Photo)

Some logistics never seem to become routine.  Landing on steep rocky islands like Nihoa and Mokumanamana is always a challenge – just one swell or gust of wind away from missing out on monitoring entire monk seal subpopulations.  This year was a treat – weather cooperated and coxswains expertly navigated – we were able to survey both hard-to-track islands.  Numerous seals and healthy pups greeted our survey teams.

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One of five mother-pup pairs observed during the survey of Mokumanamana. (NMFS Photo)

Since the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program started translocating monk seals between Northwestern Hawaiian Islands sites, their baaah-ing and pooing were welcomed (or at least tolerated) on deck by the crew and officers.  Then transit with seals got a little longer when The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital brought the possibility of rehabilitating animals if only our ships could bring them to Kona.  How to top such requests?  This year we stretched our capacity to take on our oldest rehab candidate yet (a 5 year female in emaciated condition).  The Sette crew was helpful in taking on a larger animal, and the three other patients picked up this cruise.  And they even accommodated an after-hours small boat launch to save the patients from one more night on the ship when we arrived in Kona as the sun set.

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A successful cruise wraps up with loading seals (in kennels) into the small boat for transit to Honokohau harbor, and then on TMMC’s Ke Kai Ola rehabilitation facility. (NMFS Photo)

Back to solid ground and the creature comforts of home, scientists and sailors celebrated briefly and then got to work cleaning up camp gear or prepping for the next cruise.  For a novice chief scientist, it’s a relief that none of the wrenches upset the well-oiled machine.  Field staff all home in one piece, complete dataset to better track the species, and four young seals with a second chance at survival – the end of another field season is a little bit like the start of a new year for Hawaiian monk seal research.

All monk seal work was conducted under NOAA ESA/MMPA permits 16632-01 and/or 18786.

Welcome back Kure Camp!

The Hawaiian Monk Seal A.R.C cruise has reached the farthest northern reaches of the Hawaiian Archipelago, and begun our journey home, picking up personnel and gear at five camps along the way.  Today we pulled our first field camp at Kure Atoll.

This year Kure was home to just one Hawaiian monk seal field biologist, Maureen Duffy, but don’t worry, she had plenty of company with staff and volunteers of the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Kure Atoll Field Station.

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Maureen Duffy sneaks close to read flipper tags to identify a sleeping monk seal. (NMFS Photo)

Surveying seals solo is no problem – one stealthy biologist can sneak up to identify all the seals on a small island in a day.  But hands-on activities like giving a seal flipper tags are a different story.  The DLNR crew were excited to help with seal work and even developed a rotation to be sure everyone got some experience.  When a pup weaned, Maureen would radio the DLNR crew, and two of them come to help restrain the seal so that Maureen could attach its flipper tags for identification.

Partnership between the one-person monk seal camp and DLNR field station camp had other benefits too – like group efforts to remove large marine debris from beaches, shark watch for safe bathing, or even baklava and celebrations after hard work.

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Sunrise over the Kure Atoll Field Station camp. (NMFS Photo)

The whole Kure Island population came together during the last weeks of camp to look out for one prematurely weaned seal pup.  She had been noted as underweight and lethargic when she weaned, so all in camp were hoping she would be a good candidate for rehabilitative care.  But tensions rose and spirits drooped as she went unseen for two weeks before the end of the monk seal camp season and the arrival of NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette.  The Sette would be this young seals only chance of making it to the Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital and receive a new lease on life.  Then, 2 days before the ship arrived to pack up camp, she was found!  The entire team was relieved and pitched in to carry the young seal to a pen to await transport, and take turns standing watch until she was picked up.

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NOAA monk seal biologist and DLNR field station staff work together to carry a young monk seal in need of rehab. (NMFS Photo)

Since she was captured on the day of the Perseids meteor shower, they voted to name the seal Leleaka, Hawaiian for Milky Way.

All monk seal work was conducted under NOAA ESA/MMPA permits 16632-01 and/or 18786.

NOAA’s A.R.C. Returns

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“ARC” field camp at Pearl and Hermes Reef, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette may appear like an ark on the horizon for field researchers who have spent months on remote islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Biologists dedicate two to six months to studying endangered monk seals as part of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s long-running Assessment and Recovery Camps or “ARCs.” The field teams rely on NOAA ships for food, water, equipment and supplies in these isolated conservation regions of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The NOAA ships also complete the story “arc” by transporting seals to rehabilitation and back to their homes in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

During its current voyage, from August 3 through August 26, 2016, the Oscar Elton Sette will pick up researchers and their equipment from five sites—French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure Atoll. Additionally, a small group of researchers will be deployed at Midway Atoll (where there is no season-long camp) to continue monk seal assessment and recovery activities. The scientists will also conduct seal censuses at three other sites: Nihoa Island, Mokumanamana (Necker Island), and Ni‘ihau Island.

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A group of seals at Nihoa Island (NOAA Photo)

ARCs are a long-established cornerstone of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, providing the foundational data and information for species recovery actions. But as conservation challenges constantly evolve, so does field research. This mission will deploy new unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to investigate remote survey techniques for rugged islands that are difficult to survey such as Nihoa and Mokumanamana. The UAS flights will also map vegetation, locate marine debris, and document the deterioration of man-made infrastructure at French Frigate Shoals. As structures and sea walls collapse, it results in entrapment hazards for the atoll’s wildlife, including monk seals.

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Weaned pup being transported to shore at Laysan Island in 2012 (NOAA Photo)

After retrieving field researchers and their equipment, the Sette will transport weaned seals from NWHI sites to The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital in Kona, Hawai‘i Island. Years of data have demonstrated that pups weaning under-weight have little chance of survival. Through the partnership between NOAA monk seal scientists and The Marine Mammal Center’s hospital, struggling pups get a second chance. The seal pups receive a season of rehabilitative care and then are returned to their natal sites as healthy yearlings ready to thrive.

Periodically during the expedition, shipboard personnel will collect oceanographic data on subsurface ocean temperature and conductivity by taking CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) measurements. The data will be added to a comprehensive NOAA oceanographic database and used to better understand large-scale phenomena like climate change and the dynamics of local features such as oceanic fronts.

The research mission will also provide support for several partner projects and agencies working in the NWHI. A small team of bird biologists for the American Bird Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be deployed at Laysan Island. Additionally, the Sette will pick up NOAA sea turtle biologists who have worked alongside the NOAA seal team at French Frigate Shoals.

Follow our blog and Twitter for mission updates!

We are sailing across the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Oscar Elton Sette. 

The Sette is a working ship: Researchers undertake numerous scientific endeavors; engineers ensure the engines pulse and drive us forward; officers keep us sailing safely; stewards create amazing meals and keep everyone happy; and the crew makes sure that everything else that needs to happen, happens.

On this working ship, the low rumble of engines vibrates throughout the whole structure.  The air is tinged with the smell of diesel, the lifeblood of our ship.  There are incessant bangs and clangs, the chorus of a gently rocking ship.

And then there is the laughter, barked commands, and chatter of the diverse individuals that have found themselves on this tiny ship in the middle of the Pacific.  It is a group of people with a shared mission, which turns strangers into teammates and teammates into family.

This is what life was like on the ship until just recently.

But now, new smells have permeated the air, and they are not sweet smells.  New sounds reverberate throughout the ship at odd hours, but they are far from peaceful or soothing.  With this odor and cacophony, it is hard to get enough sleep.  And yet we are eternally grateful, for these are the smells and sounds of hope, the stench and clamor of dreams coming true.

There are monk seals on board!

With the world-class rehabilitation facilities at the Hawaiian monk seal hospital, Ke Kai Ola, our research vessel has become a kind of ambulance staffed with first responders who bring seals on the brink of starvation to salvation, and then return them to the wild.  This research cruise, like many of our recent cruises, has been busy with rehabilitation activities.

Our first patient on the cruise took us by surprise.  It was the second day of our mission, and we deployed our team for a day to Ni’ihau to survey for monk seals.  One of the survey teams came across a tiny emaciated female pup; the story is told here.  This little one, which the folks on Ni’ihau named Kilo, is doing well so far.

Hawaiian monk seals, Pearl and Hermes eating

Hawaiian monk seals, Pearl and Hermes, eating fish.

Several days later, we loaded Pearl and Hermes, two recent patients of Ke Kai Ola, onto the ship.  Their three month stay in the hospital served them well.  Gone were the tiny pups we had brought in — the two seals that found themselves on the aft deck of the Sette were blubbery masses ready for freedom.  We just have to get them back to their natal atoll.  A good narrative on what it is like to take care of these portly passengers can be found here.

But now, I would like to introduce you to a new passenger aboard the Sette.

Earlier this week, we diverted our mission at Mokumanamana to head directly to French Frigate Shoals (FFS), where team members had found an emaciated female pup in need of rehabilitation.  We weren’t scheduled to stop at FFS until the return leg of the cruise — some 14 days later — but the FFS team was doubtful the pup would last that long.  Though our stop at Mokumanamana was critical for a few reasons, we are in the business of saving seals, so the island would have to wait.

Green Sea Turtle and Hawaian monk seal (AG18) on beach

On the right, Ke Kai Ola rehab candidate, Hawaiian monk seal, AG18 also known as Ama’ama.

A day later, we arrived at FFS and were greeted by a small vessel carrying four hardened field biologists and one tragically tiny pup.  The small boat pulled alongside the Sette and the FFS team quickly handed the pup up to the waiting crew.  AG18 had embarked, we thought, until we heard a shout from the FFS team over the railing: “Her name is Ama’ama.” So, Ama’ama had embarked.

(Side note: Ama’ama is Hawaiian for striped mullet, a fish.  Ama, as she’s called for short, was born on Mullet Island at FFS and now bears the name of her home.)

We have been holding off on sharing Ama’ama with you, as she was in pretty rough shape and the first day or two of rehabilitation is always critical for any seal.  As can be expected, she needed hydration, electrolytes, and food, but she also needed rest and quiet — a delicate balance. It had been a nervous period for all on board, but we think we are through the worst of it.  And though there is much to tell about her care, we will save that for another day.  For now, we just want to report that she is doing well.

And our family on the Sette is doing well, too.  Every morning we are greeted by the calls of Ama, Pearl, and Hermes that float across the deck.  They remind us of the awesome honor and responsibility we have in this grand challenge to recover monk seals.

Challenge accepted.