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!











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‘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.


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.


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!


Two young seals in a pen at French Frigate Shoals, awaiting transit to Ke Kai Ola (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 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 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 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 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 – proud sole residents of Lisianski Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Does this belong to you? A short photo essay of monk seals and trash at Laysan Island

As the Oscar Elton Sette continues down the Northwestern Hawaiian Island chain, picking up each of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program A.R.C. teams, we continue to get impressions from each camp.  Campers at Laysan were struck by the commonality of marine debris and the interactions of monk seals with it.  You read earlier about our field teams’ efforts to clean up marine debris and the several thousand pounds collected in just a few beach clean ups.  Here are some (sadly) everyday images from Laysan that demonstrate what happens to that debris in monk seal habitat.


Seal WH34 rests against a Menehune water bottle. Much of the marine debris that washes ashore on Laysan comes from Asia, but we still see a lot of recognizable local products from the Main Hawaiian Islands. Carelessly lost trash regularly makes the 800 mile journey from the main islands to wash ashore on Laysan Island. (NMFS Photo)


Seal WH10 (Niho’ole) plays with marine debris. Young Monk Seals are naturally curious and inquisitive and can often be seen playing with anything ranging from sea cucumbers, to sticks, to coral rubble and rocks, to marine debris. This curiosity and the constant barrage of ghost nets coming out the Pacific gyre is the reason that monk seals have one of the highest rates of entanglement amongst marine mammals. (NMFS Photo)


Seal GI08 calls to her pup (WH10) on the other side of a massive ghost net that washed ashore. The net found its way to on one of Laysan Island’s primary pupping beaches that had 7 mom and pup pairs at the time. In order to prevent disturbances to the mom and pup pairs, the Laysan team woke up early the next morning and returned to the beach while the seals were asleep in the vegetation. They stealthily removed as much of the net as they could before the seals moved back toward the water. (NMFS Photo)

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

What do a plastic toy, a mismatched pair of slippers, and hagfish trap have in common? They all wash up in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands!


A beach at Laysan Island littered with a vast variety of marine debris. (NMFS Photo)

Even these extremely remote, uninhabited, and protected islands are littered with marine debris.  In fact, islands in the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago can be particularly inundated with debris due to their proximity to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a current that can carry and concentrate debris that enters the ocean from points throughout the Pacific.

But does marine debris still make a beach ugly if no sunbathers are there to see it?  Yes!  Marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands poses a serious threat to sea birds that can mistakenly eat plastic materials or feed it to their young, and to endangered Hawaiian monk seals that can become dangerously entangled in debris.

During the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s Assessment and Recovery Camps, biologists don’t just study the seals, they also work to safeguard the environment for monk seals and other wildlife.  During the 2016 field season, monk seal field teams have been collecting marine debris as part of an archipelago-wide beach clean-up.  They also removed debris from established plots to assess the rate of debris accumulation. One team spent 6 hours to remove all the debris from just a 20m plot! And, of course, they removed entanglement hazards as they arose.  This marks the second year that the monk seal team has been collaborating with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program’s marine debris team to make the NWHI a better place for wildlife.


Monk seals easily become entangled in nets, line, or other debris as they rest or investigate foreign material. (NMFS Photo)

As part of the on-going research cruise on the Research Vessel Oscar Elton Sette, our crews have been removing the season’s worth of debris from the islands.  Teams removed 4 debris super sacks (large bags weighing 100-500 lb each!) from Laysan Island and 5 super sacks from Lisianski Island.  So far, over 3,300 lb of debris have been hoisted onto the Sette.  And more is waiting at other camps!  And it’s just a drop in the bucket!  Every field biologist in the camps expressed satisfaction in removing so much debris, but frustration at the amount that still remains and continues to accumulate.


Camp and cruise personnel heft large super sacks of debris from Lisianski Island into a small boat that will transport the debris to the Sette. (NMFS Photo)

But on the bright side – excess debris does lead to creativity.  Some campers get pretty crafty with marine debris!


Team Lisianski made a nice camp sign out of a washed up plastic lid. (NMFS Photo)


Field biologist Ilana Nimz used derelict fishing line and floats to weave a dream catcher – dreaming of a debris free beach! (NMFS Photo)

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

Mission at Kure Atoll focused on study of effects of climate change and ocean acidification

By Chip Young

To be working in Honolulu one day and then be scuba diving to conduct coral reef research in one of the world’s most remote atolls by the next morning is a surreal experience. Such a swift change of pace was the situation recently for 4 researchers from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED). On July 11, Jamison Gove, Noah Pomeroy, Kerry Reardon, and Chip Young joined the PIFSC cruise SE-13-05 aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette at Midway Atoll after an evening flight. That same night, the ship, which also supported deployment of monk seal camps for the PIFSC Protected Species Division during this cruise, transited to Kure Atoll, the northernmost atoll in the Pacific Ocean island chain known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Located more than 2000 km from Honolulu, Kure Atoll is an amazing natural environment and part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, established in 2006 and named a World Heritage Site in 2010.

Chip Young installs a subsurface temperature recorder at Kure Atoll on July 16 with an ulua, or giant trevally (Caranx ignobilis), in the foreground. NOAA photo by Noah Pomeroy

Chip Young installs a subsurface temperature recorder at Kure Atoll on July 16 with an ulua, or giant trevally (Caranx ignobilis), in the foreground. NOAA photo by Noah Pomeroy

Kure Atoll was formed roughly 35 million years ago when the seafloor beneath it was located over the same volcanic hotspot upon which the island of Hawai`i currently sits. A vestige of what was once a volcanic island, Kure Atoll now exists as a collection of very small, low-lying islands that make up less than 1 km2 of land and are encircled by an expansive fringing coral reef environment that includes 167 km2 of banks with depths less than 100 m. It was on these reefs that the CRED researchers conducted scuba dives on July 12–14 to establish long-term survey sites that will enable scientists to monitor the health of Kure Atoll’s reefs into the future.

The goal of this mission at Kure Atoll was to conduct the initial surveys of a broad, nationwide monitoring strategy that was established in 2012 by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program and is known as the National Coral Reef Monitoring Plan. This plan institutes survey methods that allow for the measurement of how the coral reef ecosystems of the United States change over time and incorporates most of the methods from CRED’s Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program that have been used to monitor the coral reef ecosystems of the U.S. Pacific islands and atolls since 2001.

During this expedition, the researchers focused on issues of global climate change through investigation of water chemistry, water temperature, reef calcification rates, and biodiversity of the small organisms living within reefs (cryptobiota). At Kure Atoll, scientists collected water samples for analysis of carbonate chemistry, including dissolved inorganic carbon, total alkalinity, salinity, and chlorophyll-a; retrieved and deployed oceanographic instruments, such as subsurface temperature recorders (STRs), and biological installations, such as calcification accretion units; and completed conductivity, temperature, and depth casts. The use of each method offers insight into the effects of global climate change and ocean acidification on the coral reefs of Kure Atoll, and after a long-term data set is compiled for these reefs, NOAA scientists will be able to identify the factors that influence ecosystem change and help managers of U.S. reef environments understand the processes that affect their areas of responsibility. Similar work is planned for other islands in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in September.

In addition to work at Kure Atoll during this cruise, scientists also retrieved and deployed STRs and retrieved other oceanographic instruments at Pearl and Hermes Atoll and retrieved STRs from Laysan Island.