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In mid-September, a few reports from boat captains cruising the northwest side of the island indicate that Kauai’s seventh pup for 2018 was born along the remote Napali coastline sometime around September 16th. Because winter swells are starting to impact this side of the island, it’s highly unlikely the mom will be identified nor will the pup be tagged after weaning. (The onshore break prevents humans from safely going ashore.)

Alas, there are no cute pictures!

But this could be a record year for known pup births on Kauai.

Monk Seal Count Day.

Saturday, October 27, from 9 to 12, is the annual Fall statewide count of Hawaiian monk seals. In addition to surveying for monk seals, it’s a good time to conduct educational outreach and pick up marine debris. (If there are large nets that need removing, please notify Surfrider NetPatrol at (808) 635-2593.) This event helps us monitor the population of Hawaiian monk seals around the islands and is also a good preparedness exercise in the unfortunate case of an island-wide emergency response situation. If you are a trained volunteer and are interested in participating, please call 808-651-7668.

Field Report: August

Monthly Update:
The Kauai team reported 33 individually identified seals in August for a grand total of 295 seal sightings this month. This equates to 9.5 seals sighted and reported each day.

August: 295
July: 414
June: 315
May: 332
April: 302
March: 299

New

  • A pup switch occurred for the first time on 7/20/18. RH58’s pup PK5 was forcefully taken by another mother RO28 who left her female pup PK4 alone on the beach. The Kauai team successfully reunited the correct moms with pups later that day. Another pup switch occurred on 8/2/18 when RH58’s pup PK5 was seen with another mother RK28 who had left her male pup PK3. Again, RH58 was alone but searching and calling for her pup. The Kauai team attempted to reunite the correct mothers to pups on 8/3/18. RK28 quickly took her pup PK3 back, however, RH58 rejected her pup and became aggressive toward him. The pup was left on the beach overnight in hopes that RH58 would reunite naturally. On 8/4/18, RH58’s pup PK5 was again found with RO28 at sunrise. RO28’s pup PK4 was nearby and began calling for her mother, who quickly left PK5 and rejoined PK4 without human interference. A final attempt at re-uniting PK5 with his mother RH58 occurred that morning of 8/4/18, however she continued to be aggressive toward the pup. The Kauai team captured PK5 (now permanent ID of RK58) mid-day on 8/4/18 and transported him to Lihue for USCG C130 transport to Ke Kai Ola for rehab.
  • Three seal pups weaned and were flipper tagged in August.
  • New adult male seal R8HD hauled out on Kauai after being flipper tagged on Molokai earlier this year. It was suspected this seal had been previously tagged, so the Kauai team was asked to scan the seal for a PIT tag, without disturbing the seal. A full scan was performed, no PIT tag was detected.

Updates:

  • The first pup of the year, now weanling RK42, was de-hooked by the Kauai team on 7/28/18. A large j-hook with 5’ of 100 lb test monofilament leader with swivel attached was removed from the right side of the seals mouth. The pup has not been resighted since de-hooking.
  • Bleach markings: No bleaches were applied.
  • Morbillivirus vaccinations: The North Shore pups RKA4 and RKA6 were fully vaccinated against morbillivirus.

Research/Support of PIFSC

  • Sub-sampled scat, molt, and tissue plug samples accordingly.

Monk Seal Monday #34: RK42

As you may recall, the first Kauai pup was born on April 20, 2018 at Maha’ulepu to RK13. While this pup was with her mother she was known as PK1 (Pup Kauai #1), and then after 37 days of nursing, her mother weaned her, and we briefly captured and flipper tagged her. This process usually takes less than five minutes and includes a brief restraint while plastic flipper tags are applied in the webbing of the rear flippers. Her tags read K42 and K43, making her official ID RK42. The R indicates that she is part of the Main Hawaiian Island population and the K indicates she was born in 2018, and finally the 42 is her unique ID. During the tagging process her length and girth were also measured, a microchip was injected under her skin, and she was given her first vaccination against a virus in the measles family known as morbillivirus, also known as distemper in other species. You can learn more about this virus and the monk seal vaccination program here.

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As previously reported, RK42 became entangled in hook and line fishing gear on July 28th, which left a large fish hook in her mouth. The Kauai team quickly responded and captured her on the beach and removed the hook. The hook was a rather large barbed J-hook that was somewhat difficult to remove, primarily due to the sharp barb which caused some tissue damage in her mouth and mild bleeding. She spent the rest of that day resting normally at Maha’ulepu, but has not been seen since.

It is not uncommon for young seals to find a quiet out of the way places to haul-out, so we hope that is the case. In fact, it’s happened before. In June 2009, R5AY gave birth on a North Shore Kaua`i​ beach to a female pup who was eventually tagged RA20. After weaning, as RA20 started to explore, she all but disappeared. Time between sightings would stretch into months and years. Then, surprising everyone, she started popping up on Maui and Hawai`i Island beaches. In 2017, she gave birth to her first pup. Unfortunately, the pup did not survive. However, earlier this year, RA20 gave birth to a second, healthy pup.

As with most wildlife, surviving to adulthood is not easy. First year survival rates for monk seals in the Main Hawaiian islands is approximately 80%. The hooking was a very minor so we have little reason to believe it caused her longer term problems, but again young monk seals face many threats, both anthropogenic and natural. However, we are optimistic we will see her hauled out somewhere sometime soon in good health.

This is a good reminder to report all monk seal sightings on Kaua`i by calling our hotline–808-651-7668.

Hawaiian monk seals can pup anytime throughout the year, but the majority tend to do so in the spring and summer. Typically, at the start of the year, our team starts tracking pregnant females, watching out for the regulars like RH58, RK30, and RK13. But the list will also include others and can tally more than 10. But we’ve yet to hit double digits in annual pup births on Kauai—at least, in recent history. There are likely moms who miscarry and others (like RK52) who produce stillborn pups. But a handful of pregnant females seem to disappear right before they give birth. Then, they return six or eight weeks later looking thin.

In science, “philopatry” is the tendency for an animal to stay or habitually return to the same place. “Natal philopatry” is the tendency for an animal to return to their birthplace to breed. In the case of Hawaiian monk seals, we often—but not always—see females return to their birthplace to pup. 

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program estimate approximately 300 of the endangered pinnipeds make their home in the Main Hawaiian Islands. On Kauai, we roughly estimate 50, although some seals do make inter-island trips. The island associated with the greatest number of monk seals is Niihau—at 150. Roughly 15 ocean miles separate Kauai from our neighbor island of Niihau. This is not a considerable journey for monk seals. In 2010, one monk seal outfitted with a tracking device made a 2,000-mile pelagic journey. So, for monk seals, 15 miles might be considered a walk in the park. And this can explain why 10 pregnant seals sighted on Kauai beaches results in five pups born on Kauai. A few return to their birth place on Niihau when it’s time for them to pup.

Here’s some data to illustrate:

RK14: A Kauai regular who was observed in 2017 with a pup on Niihau. RK14’s window of absence from Kauai was 8/16/17 to 11/23/17, but she isn’t sighted routinely–she likes to haul out on remote North Shore and Na Pali beaches, so her absence was most likely shorter.

R1KY: A Kauai regular who was observed in 2017 with a pup on Niihau. R1KY’s window of absence from Kauai was 4/8/17 to 6/16/17. In 2018 she wasn’t sighted on Kauai from 5/30/18 to 7/17/18, but no surveys happened on Niihau during this window so we’re unsure if she pupped. Here are before and after photos of her.

R1KY on 04182018R1KY on 07172018

R313: In 2017, she disappeared from 7/26/17 until 9/23/17, looking very large in July, but still pretty big when she came back, so we’re not sure what happened during that time. In 2018, she looked large and had teats protruding on 6/26/18 and was next sighted back on Kauai on 9/1/18 looking thin. 

In 2017, RK28 was on Kauai with teats protruding on 6/5/17, then gone until 8/24/17 when she was reported as “thin.” In 2018 she pupped on Kauai’s North Shore.

In 2018, RK90 likely pupped on Niihau between 12/28/17 and 2/17/18.

Storm Preparedness

Aloha Volunteers,

From weather briefs through the NOAA Emergency Response Team, although likely a weakening tropical storm, “Olivia” could give us dangerous weather – wind and rain- we want to carefully assess the risks in our marine animal response efforts as they come up.

Be advised that even with the storm weakened to a tropical storm we could have storm surge and inundation events which may be unpredictable. Hawaiian monk seal monitoring and responses to regular seal haul outs may be suspended depending on the the weather, ocean and flood conditions.  We will communicate via email and to volunteer team leads by phone with changes.

Please prepare and keep safe!

Mahalo for all your efforts, Mimi, Jamie and Mary W.

Monk Seal Monday #32: Molting

About the first of the month, two-year-old RH92 was reported to have started her annual molt. She joins four other seals known to have molted this year thus far: R1KT, R3CX, RG22, and V2.

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Photo credit: Lynn Nowatzki

Hawaiian monk seals experience what’s called a “catastrophic molt,” meaning the loss of the top layer of skin and fur happens in one concentrated period of time, rather than continually throughout the year. The molting process can take one to two weeks. Because molting requires great energetic resources, during this time, the seal will usually stick pretty close to the beach, often spending the night tucked high up the beach and under bushes.

Molting is a vulnerable time for monk seals, another reason to encourage folks to keep dogs on leashes. Typically, the molt starts on the belly, flippers, muzzle, and scars. Then, moves to the back. The molting pattern isn’t exactly “attractive.” A seal with patches of dead skin falling off can often cause beach-goers concern, thinking the seal is sick or, even, dead.

Adult females will often molt soon after they wean their pups. Also, any seals outfitted with a telemetry tag near its molt will lose it during the molt. (If you happen upon a telemetry tag on the beach–it’s a rare event but it has happened–please call the monk seal hotline to report it.)

T21M.Donna Lee

Photo credit: D. Lee

Basically, seals molt, because their coat gets dirty. After spending long bouts of time at sea, algae will often grow on their fur. If you see a seemingly green-colored seal, you’ll know he or she is nearing his/her molt.

After molting, monk seals regain their dark gray to brown color on their dorsal (back) side and a light gray to yellowish brown color on their under (ventral) side. This difference in coloration is known as “countershading.” From below, the seal’s light belly blends in with the sunny surface of the ocean. From above, the seal’s darker back is closer in color to the dark ocean floor. This serves as camouflage for seals. It helps them sneak up on prey, as well as, hide from sharks and other predators.

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Here’s the first interaction of RK58 and another pup named Sole at Ke Kai Ola. Sole was born on Molokai and is the older and larger of the two.

Like RK58, Sole was rescued and delivered to Ke Kai Ola–known colloquially as the Monk Seal Hospital–due to another mom-pup switch while nursing. Since 2014, Ke Kai Ola has cared for Hawaiian monk seals–mostly pups and weaners–at their facility at Kailua-Kona on Hawaii Island. Ke Kai Ola was built through a cooperative effort between the Marine Mammal Center and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

Also, speaking of RH58, on August 16, she was reported to be back on Oahu where she spends her non-motherhood days.

Meanwhile, back on Kauai, the first female to give birth this year, RK13, is putting on weight after weaning her pup, RK42. As you know, females do not feed during the five to seven weeks they nurse their pups, growing skinnier by the day. Typically, females will go into estrus sometime after weaning. They’ll also go through an annual molt in the weeks and months after weaning; however, RK13 hasn’t molted yet. She has been sighted with male R6FQ on numerous occasions since August 11th.

R6FQ is a seven-year-old male who is easily identified by deep line scars at the base of his left rear flipper, possibly sustained during a propeller strike when he was a juvenile. Prior to hanging around RK13, he was repeatedly sighted during June and half of July with RK90.

RK90 is an adult female who was likely born on Niihau. She popped up on a Kauai Beach as a juvenile in 2013 with a fish hook in her mouth. It was removed and at the same time she was flipper-tagged. Last May, she was also found with a large fish hook sticking out of her mouth. This was her second known hooking. Both hooks were successfully removed on the beach. Late last year, RK90 was sighted on Kauai looking large and very pregnant. Then, she disappeared for six weeks, returning in mid-February looking thin. It’s suspected that she returned to her natal island to give birth, something many, but not all, females do.