Tag Archives: 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 marinemammalcenter.org. It’s a great way to show that we care.

Readers’ stories illustrate concern for marine animals

Published February 9, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

turtle

My recent turtle and albatross columns, plus a fish bloom, prompted readers to email me some of their own encounters with marine animals.

Not all the stories were positive. One man threatened to sock a turtle lover with a sinker for asking the angler to fish somewhere besides a turtle hangout. Even so, all the stories are encouraging. They show that people care.

In my turtle rescue column I gave two phone numbers (725-5730 and 288-5685) to call to report injured turtles. But those Oahu numbers left neighbor islanders wondering who they should call. The following website gives current turtle rescue numbers for all islands: 1.usa.gov/1uy2piC.

Our monk seals have a different team of guardians and therefore different phone numbers. The Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline for monk seals injured or in trouble is 888-256-9840. Phone numbers for specific islands are at 1.usa.gov/1ysKPN8.

Now my cellphone contacts named “Turtle” and “Seal” have websites, too.

One reader saw a Japanese tour group taking pictures not 5 feet from a monk seal at Kaena Point. She explained that people must stay at least 150 feet from resting seals, but the visitors didn’t understand. Her good suggestion is that the English signs in the preserve should also be in Japanese and Chinese.

seal

Another Kaena Point concern was that nesting albatrosses were being disturbed by students weeding and planting inside the closed area. The reader worried because the birds were flying and vocalizing far more than in the past.

Having worked with albatrosses, I’m confident that the planters were not disturbing the nesting birds. Albatrosses evolved without predators and don’t fear humans — or hardly anything else.

Years ago on Midway, when the Navy still managed the atoll, I watched nesting albatrosses sit calm and collected as workers rode roaring lawn mowers in circles around the birds’ nests.

albies

The exuberant activity at Kaena right now is from young albatrosses singing and dancing to attract a lifetime mate. The partying is a sign the colony is growing because the birds that pair off at Kaena this year will return next year to raise chicks.

gurnard

And finally, several readers wrote to report sightings of flying gurnards. The fish don’t fly. Their name comes from winglike fins that fan the ocean floor to uncover shrimp and crabs.

Last fall Hawaii’s flying gurnards had such a population explosion that in some places they were washing ashore.

Think of the pictures you took of these usually rare fish the way I do my letters from readers: as gems to save.

Thank you all for taking the time to write.


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

©2015 Susan Scott

 

Call fisheries service if you spot the ‘Kaneohe Kid’

Published December 9, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

“Im so glad you’re home,” my neighbor Valerie said breathlessly when I answered the phone.

“There’s a monk seal playing with a fisherman right here on our beach.”

Playing with, I thought skeptically. More like, fleeing from. Then I heard the story.

Valerie had been walking on the beach when she saw a seal pop its head up near a man spearfishing in waist-deep water. The seal swam shoulder-to-shoulder with the man, occasionally nudging him. The man gently pushed the seal away, but it wouldn’t leave.

The story seemed inconceivable to me until she added, “They came in so close, I waded in. And it touched me.”

“A monk seal touched you?” I said.

“I know you’re not supposed to get near them. But it came to me. Just like with the fisherman. It seems to crave the contact.”

By this time, I was already pulling on my swimming suit. “I’ve got to see this,” I told her. “Grab your snorkel gear.”

Moments later, Valerie and I found the fisherman. He was minding his own business, looking for octopus. Directly behind him, playing with a trailing line and a net full of octopus, was the friendliest monk seal pup in the world. He bounded around the man like an exuberant puppy.

“Excuse me,” I said to the fisherman. “Do you know this seal?”

“Nope.”

“He seems to like you,” I said.

“I can’t get rid of him. He’s ruining the fishing.”

“Maybe he’s attracted to your octopuses.”

“Naw. I gave him one. He wouldn’t eat it.”

The mildly irritated man returned to his fishing; Valerie and I snorkeled behind. The pup checked us out and, yes, even rubbed against us. But his main interest was with the fisherman.

After a while, Valerie and I came in, leaving the spirited pup with his reluctant new friend.

The pup, I learned later, was the “Kaneohe Kid,” a Hawaiian monk seal born last spring on a Mokapu Peninsula beach. When its mother weaned the little male, officials of the National Marine Fisheries Service decided to leave it in Oahu waters and see what happened. Perhaps it would become an ambassador, endearing people to its species.

It endeared itself a little too much. The wild animal got so friendly, it soon found trouble. Once, managers had to remove a fishhook from its mouth. Also, concerned citizens called constantly, reporting incidents similar to the one above.

Then, just when officials decided it was time to move the affectionate pup to a remote area, the calls stopped. The Kaneohe Kid has disappeared.

Managers fear the pup is dead but don’t know for sure. If you see this friendly seal, you can help him by calling the National Marine Fisheries Service at 943-1221.

Resist the urge to touch this or any other Hawaiian monk seal. These critically endangered mammals are protected by strict federal laws. Also, they can bite, even in play.

Female monk seal draws attention but needs privacy

Published May 20, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996Susan Scott

The monk seal and her pup on Mokapu Peninsula. Official USMC photo by Aaron Martin.

LAST week, on Mother’s Day, I received a dinner invitation from friends staying at a Kaneohe Marine Base VIP cottage.

It wasn’t until I was driving down the narrow road of the Mokapu Peninsula that I remembered a press release sitting on my desk. In April, a female monk seal had given birth on a beach somewhere near these cottages.

Now there’s a noteworthy mother, I thought. Since only about 1,300 Hawaiian monk seals are left in the world, this female’s maternal efforts may make a vital contribution to the survival of her entire species.

After greeting our hosts, I asked about the seal mother and her pup. They had heard nothing.

I trudged down to the beach and asked the federal lifeguard about the seal. He knew of the event but believed that the pup was weaned and both seals had left the peninsula.

This seemed early to me, but then, I couldn’t remember how long monk seals nursed their pups. I returned to the cottage disgruntled that I hadn’t seen the seals and frustrated with myself for not remembering more details.

After several calls the next day, I learned that yes, the mother seal is still on the beach nursing her healthy pup, born April 6.

However, they are on an isolated (and now roped-off) beach on the Kaneohe Bay side of the peninsula. I was looking on the Kailua side.

Female monk seals nurse their young for about six weeks, meaning this Oahu pup’s weaning is likely to occur any day now.

After its withdrawal from mother’s milk, National Marine Fisheries Service managers will decide if the pup (called a weaner at this stage) needs to be moved to another island or left on Oahu.

THE move would be for its own safety. Five years ago, this same seal mother gave birth to another pup on Oahu’s North Shore. Fearing nets or other fishing gear on Oahu would hurt or kill the youngster, officials moved the weaner to Kure Atoll.

That pup, a female, is now alive, well and approaching sexual maturity. Managers are anxiously waiting for signs that this Oahu offspring is pregnant.

But back to the Oahu mother. Although not tagged, this seal, at least 12 years old, is no stranger to Hawaii’s marine mammal managers, who recognize her by her unique body scars. Besides giving birth here, this seal occasionally shows up in public places, causing plenty of commotion.

ONCE, she spent the day basking at a popular beach in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. Biologists sat with her for the day to answer questions and manage crowds.

Another time, this resolute female picked a public place on Maui to molt, causing day after day of traffic jams by wildlife enthusiasts.

After learning the history of this particular monk seal, I realized that my inability to find her at Mokapu last week was probably a blessing in disguise. Although this seal appears to tolerate humans more than most, she still needs peace and quiet during this critical period of nursing her young.

This isolated Oahu beach was the perfect place for this extraordinary mother to spend Mother’s Day with her new baby.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean Watch”,
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, www.starbulletin.com