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.

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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).

The People Aboard NOAA’s ARC: Teams Pearl & Hermes and Kure

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.

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Map of Pearl and Hermes Atoll.

Team Pearl and Hermes

With over 450 square miles of coral reef and less than 1/4 square mile of total land area, Pearl and Hermes Atoll is dominated by vivid blues (rumored even to have inspired paint colors). The Pearl and Hermes team spends a lot of time out in the cerulean waters traveling between islets to survey the atoll’s seal population.

 

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Pearl & Hermes Team: (L-R) Caroline Cummings, Alix Gibson, Darren Roberts, Megan Roberts (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Darren Roberts (6th season) – Now a hardened field biologist alternating seasons between the NWHI and Antarctica, Darren’s first degree was actually in music theory, and he has even performed at Carnegie Hall.  We’re waiting to hear his theme song for camp Pearl & Hermes!

Megan Roberts (3rd season) – Growing up in rural Idaho, Megan didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing till she was 16.  No wonder she adjusts so well to life in this remote island camp!

Caroline Cummings (1st season) – Caroline recently completed her Master’s degree studying seals in Scotland, she also learned to love kilts and beer.  She’s excited to learn about another seal species.

Alix Gibson (1st season) – Alix has been nurturing marine life at many levels – she’s got rare skills in raising moon jellyfish.  This summer she’ll gain a whole new skill set to help monk seals!

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Pearl and Hermes camp, just 12 feet above sea level at Southeast Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Teamwork

Teamwork! The monk seal camp team and staff from the State of Hawaii’s Department of Forestry and Wildlife pitch in for the hard work of hefting water and other gear to set up field camp (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Team Kure Atoll

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Map of Kure Atoll.

The farthest point in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Kure Atoll is home to an old U.S. Coast Guard post turned field camp. The Kure monk seal team is small, but they enjoy sharing the camp with members the State of Hawaii’s Department of Forestry and Wildlife team.

Ilana Nimz (4th season) – Ilana claims she can’t smell – I guess that means she’ll be collecting the scat samples this season. Besides being a talented scientist, Ilana is also quite the artist. She turns glass balls, woods, and any other debris she can get her hands on into works of art.

David Golden (1st season) – David started honing his outdoor skills as an eagle scout.  Hmmm we should probably make some merit badges for all the way these field biologists can save seals over the course of a season (disentanglement, antibiotic injections, vaccinations, reuniting moms and pups, moving pups away from shark predation, and more!)

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Kure Team: (L-R) David Golden, Ilana Nimz (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

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Monk seal camp at Kure Atoll, one of the only monk seal inland camps and it rests in the center of Green Island (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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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Team Lisianski – proud sole residents of Lisianski Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).