Category Archives: Hawaiian Monk Seal

Ke Kai Ola is a healing place for Hawaii’s rare monk seals

Published March 14, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Monk seal pups Pearl and Hermes are nearly back to full strength at Ke Kai Ola. Courtesy Julie Steelman / NOAA 16632-00-932-1905-01MA-009526-1

Monk seal pups Pearl and Hermes are nearly back to full strength at Ke Kai Ola. Courtesy Julie Steelman / NOAA 16632-00-932-1905-01MA-009526-1

In 2014 I heard that a monk seal hospital opened on Hawaii island’s Kona Coast. I didn’t know any more about it until a year later when I picked up a friend returning from Midway Atoll. His seatmates on the plane had been two monk seal pups found at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in Papahanau- mokuakea National Marine Monument.

The curious and adorable youngsters, each resting in its own crate, sniffed us human admirers before workers whisked the babies away. The hungry pups, abandoned by their mothers, were going to Ke Kai Ola, Hawaii’s monk seal hospital.

The next time I’m on the Big Island, I vowed, I’m going to this place and see what it’s about. The time arrived. During my visit last week, I learned that Ke Kai Ola is an arm of the Marine Mammal Center, a nonprofit veterinary research hospital and educational facility in Sausalito, Calif. Its Kona branch is in the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, a site where deep, pristine seawater is available for various projects.

Hospital manager Deb Wickham welcomed me warmly. Deb showed me not only an education center, but a state-of-the-art operating room, a kitchen to prepare seal meals, the water circulation system and four saltwater recovery pools.

We talked in the building’s central office, which looks like a miniature mission control.

To prevent recuperating seals from becoming accustomed to people, hospital staff don’t let the seals see them more than necessary. Four closed-circuit cameras provide live coverage of the pools, enabling workers to observe the seals’ activity on large monitors.

A one-way window also lets caregivers watch the seals’ behavior undetected.

In its 21 months of operation, Ke Kai Ola has rehabilitated 15 injured, sick and emaciated monk seals. With 1,200 Hawaiian monk seals left in the world, that’s a significant 1 percent of the population.

Monk seals spend two-thirds of their time at sea, hunting for fish, lobster and octopus. When not hunting, seals nap on sandy beaches and rocky shores. If you see a monk seal, stay at least 50 yards away and, please, be quiet. Let the tired animal rest.

I was happy to learn that the pups I met at the airport, named Pearl and Hermes, are fat, healthy and will soon go back to their ocean home. Five other recovered monk seals are also nearly ready to go.

I enjoyed visiting this place of healing and discovering what it’s about. This gift to Hawaii’s seals, one of the rarest seal species on Earth, is about caring.

As a nonprofit group, Ke Kai Ola needs volunteers and donations. To contribute go to It’s a great way to show that we care.

Kaena Point is hard to beat for watching nature’s glory

Published November 25, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A Hawaiian monk seal basked at Kaena Point last week. ©2013 Susan Scott

Last week I hikedto Kaena Point, a daylong excursion (about a one-hour drive from Honolulu, and a 5-mile round-trip hike). A few days later I got a text from a friend: “Hiking to Kaena Point. Wanna come?”

Leaving Oahu’s mass of buildings and lines of vehicles and walking into that world-class wildlife sanctuary had been like stepping through a magic wardrobe. Could I turn down another such journey? Of course not. I accepted instantly.

In the 1980s the state banned motorized vehicles from the 59-acre space to allow the plants and animals of this rare dune ecosystem (one of the last in the main Hawaiian Islands) to recover. And that they did, especially after the 2011 installation of a cat/rat/mongoose-resistant fence.

During my visits, Laysan albatrosses worked the wind, soaring as only albatrosses can. Other albatross parents had already hunkered down on newly laid eggs, and a few were singing and dancing in their search for mates. About 400 of these native seabirds spend the nesting season at Kaena Point, and the numbers continue to grow.


Wedge-Tailed Shearwater chick. ©2013 Susan Scott

Layman Albatross. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

Layman Albatross. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

 Wedge-tailed shearwaters (the “wedgies” I wrote about two weeks ago) also nest here. Full grown but still downy, chicks are emerging from their underground burrows, blinking in the bright sun. The youngsters are gearing up for the big leap, their first flight to the sea.

Kaena Point is also an ideal place to watch humpback whales and winter waves. Besides the beauty of big surf, the 20-foot-tall waves pounding the shore during my first visit caused four Hawaiian monk seals to choose a sleeping place exceptionally high on the beach. Several residents and visitors, a monk seal expert and 91 Punahou students admired the seals from a respectful distance. (To read about Kaena Point’s seals, and others spotted around the islands, see

Kaena Point

©2013 Susan Scott

This westernmost corner of Oahu gets our youngsters out hiking and, at the same time, teaches in the best way: by showing rather than telling. A troop of Kame­ha­meha students arrived as we left.

A sparkling diamond on the pinkie finger of Oahu, Kaena Point proves that given protection from vehicles and introduced predators, wildlife and humans can, even on a crowded island, coexist.

This special state preserve is a good place to visit any time, but especially so this week of Thanksgiving. If anything on this island makes me feel thankful to be alive, healthy and living on Oahu, it’s the precious point we call Kaena.

I’m already planning my next trip.

monk seal

Juvenile Monk Seal, Kaena Point. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott