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!


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!


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.


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.


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.

The Best Laid Plans…

To paraphrase the immortal words of Robert Burns, the best laid plans of monk seals and unmanned aerial systems often go awry.

We are currently on day three of our NOAA’s ARC journey to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to conduct monk seal research and recovery efforts.  Part of the mission is to continue our work testing APH-22 hexacopters for use in monk seal monitoring work.

Our plan for this leg of the cruise is to fly the “bird” to survey for seals at Nihoa and Mokumanamana and map Tern Island at French Frigate shoals to document some of the entrapment hazards that are a threat to monk seals and other wildlife.  We will talk more about Tern Island in our next blog entry, so stay tuned.

Looking east on Nihoa's beach

Looking east across the main beach of Nihoa. This sandy beach is the primary haul out for most of Nihoa’s monk seals. (NMFS Photo)


The APH-22 hexacopter in flight on a previous mission. Hopefully, it will fly again soon for monk seals. (Photo by Ali Bayless, PIFSC)

The APH-22 is great little machine.  Its six propellers provide stability and control, as well as ensure the bird won’t crash if an engine or two fails.  Onboard processors help it withstand gusts from any direction by revving some motors and slowing others to compensate for forceful push and pull of the wind.  Yet despite the miracles of technology, there are still some limitations to when and where we can operate.  If the winds are blowing faster than 15-20 knots, we can’t fly.  If it is raining, we can’t fly.  Only by the grace of fickle Mother Nature are we able to fly or relegated to be earthbound.

These past two mornings, we were greeted by majestic views of two of the Archipelago’s most impressive islands thrusting up from the ocean.  Birds launched from sheer cliff faces to ride the winds that swirled around these sacred islands; swirling winds that were much too powerful for our own bird to take wing.  So despite over a year of planning for this operation, Mother Nature had other ideas, and the APH-22 stayed in its box.


Several monk seals, including mothers and pups, resting on a lava ledge at Mokumanamana. Marine debris litters these remote protected haul-outs. (NMFS photo)

But spirits are still high for the flying team.  It is hard to be disappointed when you sit at the foot of these islands.  We also have one more day of flight ops planned for tomorrow, and the forecast looks promising.  So please keep your collective fingers crossed for us.  This is the most important flying day we have.


The UAS team returning to the Sette after searching for a calm spot to fly the hexacopter. Disappointment is lessened by the majesty of Mokumanamana and the Sette bordering a rising sun. (NMFS Photo)

Despite wind and swell putting the damper on our UAS mission, the seal survey team was still able to land on both islands to count seals.  These visits are critical, as Nihoa and Mokumanamana are becoming ever more important locations for monk seals.  The monk seal tally for Nihoa was 34 seals, including 3 mother/pup pairs and 2 weaned pups.  Mokumanamana had a total of 18 seals, with 5 nursing mother/pup pairs.  That is a great day for Mokumanamana!


Mother and pup monk seal sleeping in a tide pool at Mokumanamana. (NMFS Photo)

We now turn the ship northwest and head to French Frigate Shoals.  Flight operations start at 9 AM tomorrow…Mother Nature willing.

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

Monk seal team visits Nihoa

Photos and post by Siri Hakala



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 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.