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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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.

nwhi_overview_map_med

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)

Monk seal team visits Nihoa

Photos and post by Siri Hakala

Nihoa

Nihoa

June 23

Yesterday morning there was a knock on our stateroom door. Jessie Lopez (Chief Scientist) and Charles Littnan (Lead of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program) were inviting me to join the crew going to Nihoa that day.  It meant that I was switching places with my roommate, Stacie Robinson, so I also owe her a big thanks- especially because she also lent me her camera for the day.

I had to quickly eat breakfast, pack a lunch and change into quarantined clothing for the day. After the small-boat meeting on the fantail, I packed Stacie’s camera plus some sunscreen and water into a dry bag and hustled down to the grated deck to grab a life jacket and hard hat. I was the last one to board the Metal Shark, already nestled against the 02 deck, ready to be lowered into the water.

THE AVON (LEFT) APPROACHING THE ROCKY LEDGE. METALSHARK WAITS ON THE RIGHT.

THE AVON (LEFT) APPROACHING THE ROCKY LEDGE. METAL SHARK WAITS ON THE RIGHT.

The landing on Nihoa can be tricky. The skilled crew of the Hi’ialakai piloted the inflatable Avon up to a rocky ledge, timing the approach with the wave surge and then instructed us on when we could step over onto the rocks. Only a couple of people can get out of the boat at a time because of the timing of the surge. Both our landing and departure went smoothly.

Shortly after we arrived it started to rain. We stashed our life jackets near the ledge and had begun walking towards the beach. There is one principal area where monk seals haul out, a beach that is short walk from the rocky ledge. We waited out the first squall in a some carved-out area in the rock (almost earning the name of ‘cave’ but not quite). After it let up we continued along the edge, picking our way across the lava rock, up and down and over. I was thankful both for the hiking boots I had on, and the rugged nature of the rock which meant it wasn’t slippery in the rain.

The permission to land on Nihoa and to approach the seals is granted by two separate permits: NMFS Permit # 16632 covers the monk seal work and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument Manager’s Permit allows us to work on Nihoa. Our group consisted of Jessie Lopez, Mark Sullivan, Charles Littnan, Justin Rivera (from the Monument office) and me. Meg Duhr-Schultz (USFWS) and Laurie Harvey also came on island to remove an invasive species of plant (sandbur).  The monk seal crew’s mission was to survey the seals on island, bleach mark any adults without pups, tag any possible and check the remote camera systems put in place last year.  There are two cameras placed up on the cliff on opposite sides of the beach. They’re set up to take photos every 15 minutes during daylight hours. Since we don’t ever have a constant presence at Nihoa these cameras will help document how many seals use this beach.

As the weather cleared Jessie and Mark began to bleach-mark seals that were far enough away from the moms and pups so as not to disturb them.  I sat in my spot and took way too many photos. There was one mom and pup pair fairly close by. This pup looked like it was less than a week old. I refer to it as “WrinklePup”.  Newborn pups have extra folds of skin that they seem to grow into fairly quickly, but this one looked a bit like a cross between an inch-worm and a furry tadpole. With flippers.

And then the sun came out.

The team took the opportunity to tag two seals.  In addition to being a permitted activity, tagging seals is a procedure that gets evaluated by the NMFS Southwest Pacific Islands Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (SWPI IACUC). Mandated by the Animal Welfare Act, all research protocols involving mammals and turtles get evaluated by an IACUC to ensure that the protocols being used are the most humane possible, and that the overall purpose is worth the impact to the animal.