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Another one of Kauai’s regular “puppers” has added to the Hawaiian Monk Seal population.

PK3’s arrival was reported to the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui last Wednesday, July 10th. It’s not unusual for tour boat captains and kayak outfitters to alert us to new pups born in remote locations. This report came from Captain Rob. He also provided a photo, and in it, you can also see–if you squint really well–the remains of the afterbirth on the beach below the pup. This is a good indication the pup is quite young, maybe just hours old.

PK3 + K30

But the photo didn’t positively identify the mother. Based on the date and location (not identified here for the safety of the mom and pup); however, that narrowed the mother down to a couple suspected seals. Well, one, in particular.

Because the pupping site is in such a remote location, neither one of our NOAA/DLNR officials nor any of Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui volunteers were able to immediately respond to identify the mother. However, thanks to the work of one volunteer who is adept at searching social media, we now know the mother in question is none other than RK30.

It was one particular scar that confirmed RK30’s identity as the mother of PK3, as seen in an Instagram photo, that allowed her to be identified. The scar was that of an old entanglement wound from a line (rope) that once encircled her neck.

RK30 is somewhere around 20 years of age, give or take a year. She’s also one of the most storied monk seals around, having survived many threats to her life. Read more about RK30 here.

This is RK30’s 11th known pup.

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PC: @tripoverthings

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PC: @tripoverthings

Earlier this year, we reported on male competition taking places along the shoreline on Kauai’s south side. It can get pretty aggressive–and another good reason to steer clear of monk seals in the water.

Now, we want to share about another kind of aggression among monk seals. This interaction generally but not always takes place between a group of males and a single female and is called male mobbing. Like “cruising males,” the perpetrators tend to be a group of competing sub-adult males.

In 2016, RK28 was observed with large wounds and abscesses on her back. It was determined these wounds were caused by male monk seals who had attempted to mount her and while doing so, biting her repeatedly on the back. The wounds can be pretty severe and certainly disconcerting-looking to our eyes. For good reason, it turns out.

According to the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s website, “Events involving multiple and single adult male Hawaiian monk seals exhibiting aggression towards adult females and immature seals has led to a significant number of severe injuries and deaths. Unfortunately, the loss of even a single female, and the loss of her lifetime reproductive potential, represents a significant setback to population recovery of this endangered species.”

Luckily, RK28 went on to give birth in 2018, and she’s thought to be pregnant again this year. If so, she may pup any time now.

Last week, one of our diligent volunteers ran across a video on Instagram, presumably taken in the waters off the nearby islands of Niihau and Lehua. In the caption, tour boat captain @crazy_capt_r writes, “This was an incredible experience! This is a very dramatic scene of the Hawaiian monk seal’s [sic] mating. In the video there are 9 males vying to mate with 1 female. She slips away from one male only to be grabbed by one of the other males waiting nearby. This is only a partial video of the whole ordeal. This went on for at least 30 minutes before they dispersed into deeper water.”

Here’s a link to the video. Warning: it might be disturbing to some people.

Tracy Mercer with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Science Team reviewed the video and confirmed the behavior is more consistent with male mobbing than mating. She also reported that she’s seen many females on Niihau with the scars from mobbing events. So, it’s not all that unusual, especially in pockets of the population when males greatly outnumber females. In fact, there have been instances over the years in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where approximately 85 percent of the species’ population resides, that have led to the demise of enough females to cause NOAA to intervene.

Also from the NOAA PIFSC website:

Over an 11 year period from 1984-1994, 37 male seals were selectively removed from Laysan Island to restore a balanced sex ratio. These seals were translocated to Johnston Atoll (n=9) or the main Hawaiian Islands (n=21), placed into captivity (n=5), or died (n=2). Following removal, instances of injury or death from multiple male aggression events drastically declined. The removal of these males from the Laysan Island population has contributed to the restoration of a balanced sex ratio and has proven a valuable mitigation strategy.

Single male aggression events have most notably occurred at French Frigate Shoals and more recently at Kure Atoll. Intervention efforts include hazing of identified aggressors, translocating pups from areas where aggressive males frequent, treating injured seals when appropriate and removal of the adult male. The 3 adult males at French Frigate Shoals observed to repeatedly target pups, were translocated to Johnston Atoll (n=2 in 1998) or euthanized (n=1 in 1991). One adult male was brought into permanent captivity in 2013 after he had been observed injuring pups at Kure Atoll. This mitigation strategy effectively reduced pup deaths as a result of adult male aggression at this site.

But here’s the interesting thing. Tracy also reported the actual mating behavior and practices of Hawaiian monk seals is a bit of a mystery. Presumably it takes place in the water, not on land. In the numerous decades of Hawaiian monk seal research, no one on staff with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Science Team has witnessed the actual mating of monk seals. A few non-staff people have reported mating taking place nearshore. But that hasn’t been scientifically confirmed.

To read more about adult male aggression, click here. And if you see a female with fresh wounds on her back, please report it to the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal hotline at 808-651-7668. This will allow the animal’s health to be assessed. If the injuries are severe, she may be treated with antibiotics to prevent the wounds from becoming infected. Then again, Hawaiian monk seals have an amazing natural ability to heal. We’ve seen it time and again.

 

During a weekend in April 2018, a record-setting storm ravaged Kaua’i. Not a square yard of the island was spared. Lightning lit up the sky. Thunder shook the walls of homes down to their foundation. Streams swelled into rivers and rivers into raging water racing for the ocean, sweeping away homes and cars and, even, buffalo en route.

The hardest hit was a stretch of approximately eight miles on the North Shore, beginning just west of Hanalei and stopping at the road’s end at Ke’e. When it was all said and done, one rain gauge measured a 24-hour rainfall of a whopping 49.7 inches. A U.S. record. All that rain triggered rockslides, ripped out sections of the road, and damaged bridges, instantly making Historic Highway 560 impassable. The road closure reduced the number of people on Haena’s beaches from 3,000 to, maybe, three daily.

With so few people on the beach, there was little need for volunteers to help with outreach. However, a few stalwart volunteers who live in the area continued to scout for seals, conducting health assessments and providing reports to the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui.

On Monday, June 17, 2019 the road re-opened to the public for the first time, and by 8:30 in the morning, RK52 was reported on the beach. She’s a regular there. But R313, RK05, RH38, RK14 and several others have been sighted on these beaches, as well.

There are only a few volunteers in the Haena area; however, lifeguards and Haena residents often help out by setting up signs and monitoring seals. To prepare for the return of visitors now that the road is open and the beaches are filling up again, racks filled with signs are stationed every 200-300 yards beginning at Hanalei Colony Resort all the way to the very end of the road at Ke’e Beach Park. This is approximately a 4 mile stretch of beach. We welcome the assistance of all beach users to assist with educating visitors who may approach seals too closely or not understand that seals often haul-out and rest alone along this shoreline. If you’d like to become a trained volunteer, please call 808-651-7668.

In the Hawaiian monk seal world, the term “logging” refers to a behavior performed by monk seals when they float on the surface of the ocean–not actively swimming–for extended periods of time. This time of year, it’s a behavior some very pregnant seals may exhibit in the days leading up to their delivery.

In the coming weeks, several females who regularly pup on Kauai may be seen logging in shallow water. Based on their pupping dates last year, these females anticipated due dates are as follows:

  • RK22 – June 22. (Although there’s no sign of her yet.)
  • RK30 – July 1.
  • RK28 – July 13
  • RO28 – July 16
  • RH58 – August 1

Logging by near-term pregnant females is natural behavior in monk seals. However, extended periods of logging can also be symptomatic of underlying health problems. When RK13 was healing from a suspected shark bite, she spent a fair amount of time logging in the shallow water of freshwater canals.

Logging can also be a symptom of toxoplasmosis, a disease that can be deadly to monk seals. Toxo is the number one disease threat to Hawaiian monk seals.

The parasite Toxoplasma gondii is a microscopic, single-cell organism. Just one of their eggs—known as oocysts— is enough to kill a monk seal. A single cat can excrete 145 billion eggs per year in its feces, according to DLNR. It’s a staggering number.

According to this NOAA report, “The parasite that causes ‘toxo’ sexually reproduces in cats, which shed T. gondii eggs into the environment via their feces. The feces of just one cat contains millions of T. gondii eggs that survive in the environment for many months.

“Any warm-blooded animal, including humans, can contract toxoplasmosis by ingesting a single T. gondii egg — and cats are essential for the reproduction and spread of the parasite.”

Since 2001, eleven Hawaiian monk seals have died of toxoplasmosis. Logging is one behavioral symptom. Of the 11 confirmed deaths due to toxo, eight were female. At least, two were pregnant. Unfortunately, once the disease progresses to the point of visual symptoms like logging, it can be too late for veterinarians to help. It’s not an easy death, either. It’s suspected the near-shore logging behavior occurs, because it’s too painful for the seal to haul out on the sand. In the days leading up to RB24‘s death due to toxoplasmosis, she was reported logging in canals on Oahu.

It can seem like a weird thing–how can the feces of pet (and feral) cats kill Hawaiian monk seals? To help explain, NOAA created this infographic and fact sheet. More information about toxoplasmosis can be found here and here.

And if you see a logging seal–whether pregnant or not–please report it to the Hawaiian monk seal hotline at 808-651-7668.

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Every month, anywhere from 30 to 38 individual Hawaiian monk seals are reported to the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui. But just who are these regulars? Here’s a look at the top ten most reported Hawaiian monk seal sightings on Kauai this year to date.

Keep in mind, many things affect this list. Monk seals often have favorite haul out locations. If a monk seal favors a location that happens to be easily accessible by humans, bingo, that seal will be reported more often to the hotline.

Then, of course, monk seal moms and their pups rack up a high number of reported sightings, because they stick to the same beach for weeks on end. As this list will also reveal, young monk seals–especially sub-adult males–are often sighted and reported, too.

  1. With 83 sightings, adult R7GM tops the list of most reported monk seal sightings on Kauai this year.  A female, it appears R7GM may be pregnant for the first time. If she pups on Kauai, her chances skyrocket for remaining at the top of this list for 2019.
  2. With 81 sightings, R3CX ranks second for the most reported monk seal sightings on Kauai. R3CX is a five-year-old male commonly seen roughhousing with other young males on Poipu Beach.
  3. With 65 sightings, RG58 ranks third for the most reported monk seal sightings on Kauai. RG58 is a four-year-old male who also prefers the busy beaches of Poipu. His mother is the renown RH58, also known as Rocky.
  4. With 56 sightings, RB00 ranks fourth for the most reported monk seal sightings on Kauai. The year’s first report of RB00 came two days before she gave birth. She nursed for 54 days and immediately left Kauai after weaning her pup. Recently, RB00 was sighted on Maui. RB00 also counts Rocky as her mother.
  5. With 53 sightings, RK52, yet another offspring of the prolific Rocky, ranks fifth on our list. She provided us with Kauai’s second pup of the year. She nursed for 36 days.
  6. With 53 sightings, RN44 ranks sixth for the most reported monk seal sightings on Kauai this year. He is a healthy six-year-old male, frequently sighted on his natal beach on the North Shore of the island. His mother is also Rocky.
  7. With 52 sightings, RL08 is the grandson of Rocky. He was born to RB00 earlier this year and nursed for a whopping 54 days.
  8. With 50 sightings, RK58 ranks eighth for the most reported monk seal sightings on Kauai this year. Another pup of Rocky’s, RK58 was abandoned by his mother in 2018 and spent several months in rehab at Ke Kai Ola before being released back on Kauai.
  9. With 41 sightings, RK30 ranks ninth for the most reported monk seal sightings on Kauai this year. RK30 is pushing 20 years of age. She’s also one of the most storied monk seals around, having survived many threats to her life. Read more about RK30 here.
  10. With 40 sightings, RG22 ranks tenth for the most reported monk seal sightings on Kauai this year. RG22 is another four-year-old male who loves to roughhouse with the boys at Poipu.

The Kauai team logged 262 seal sightings this month. This included 30 individually identified seals.

May: 262
April: 348
March: 350
Feb: 303
Jan: 284
Dec: 153
Nov: 145
Oct: 203
Sep: 199

New:

·       Off leash dogs continue to be an issue at several beaches. At Kiahuna Beach in Poipu a seal was chased off the beach by an off-leash dog, and another seal was chased off Fuji Beach by a dog that pulled free of the owner. Contact was not made between the dogs and seals and the seals were uninjured, however they were flushed off the beach and out of the area.

Updates:

·       Subadult female RH38 who was captured and sent to KKO for care continues to improve and we are optimistic that she will be released back on Kauai eventually, hopefully soon.

·       Adult female RK52 successfully weaned her pup PK2 after 36 days of nursing. The pup was tagged as L52/L53. The pup’s axillary girth was 100 cm. This pup has remained in his natal area and routinely interacts with several other seals in the area. He has been observed feeding on sea cucumbers and appears to be thriving.

·       Pup RL08 continues to haul out in his natal area, too, and is often observed feeding on sea cucumbers. The seal continues to thrive.

·       Displacements: No seals were displaced this month.

·       Bleach markings: 1 was applied this month.

·       Molting: no seals were observed molting this month.

·       Vaccinations: Pup RL52 was given the initial morbillivirus vaccination during flipper tagging.

Like we’ve shared before, one of the most crucial times of a monk seal’s life are those first weeks after weaning. No longer fed by their mother, weaners must discover on their own what’s edible and what’s not. Sometimes that involves ingesting some marine organism not typical of a monk seal’s diet, say a sea cucumber. Considered “generalists” by scientists, adult monk seals forage on the ocean floor, using their strong necks to flip over rocks at average depths of 200 feet and deeper, dieting on octopus, eel, flat fish, lobster, and squid.

But not weaners. For the first few months after weaning, they stick close to shore, discovering what’s plentiful and easy to catch. Like sea cucumbers.

Kauai’s newest weaner, RL52, is adjusting to life as a monk seal. Here, he sports sea cucumber goo on his whiskers. This is very typical of young weaners.

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Photo credit: V. Bloy

Unfortunately, a young monk seal’s edible explorations also include some unsavory things like this plastic hagfish cone.

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Photo credit: V. Bloy

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Photo credit: V. Bloy

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Photo credit: V. Bloy

While RL52 didn’t run into any serious trouble this time, other weaners haven’t been so lucky. A few years ago, a young seal hauled out with a plastic ring around his muzzle. That same year, another youngster hauled out with a decaying plastic water bottle around his nose. A weaner in 2017 was found rolling in a wad of monofilament fishing line.

Here are some more photos of RL52 interacting with the plastic cone.

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Photo credit: V. Bloy

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Photo credit: V. Bloy

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Photo credit: V. Bloy

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Photo credit: V. Bloy

Lucky for RL52, one of our intrepid volunteers waited for him to abandon the hagfish cone; then, she retrieved it to dispose of it properly.

Here’s what remained of the cone.

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Photo credit: V. Bloy

But just what is a hagfish cone and what is it used for?

We’ll start with a hagfish, often called a slime eel.

Turns out, hagfish are some interesting creatures. They’re fish but have no true fins. Resembling an eel with a long, narrow body, hagfish measure some 20 inches in length. Their tails flatten at the end like a paddle. Hagfish have brains but no spinal cords. Journalist Susan Scott wrote this great piece about hagfish. It’ll explain how they got their nickname, “slime eel.”

Hagfish are tricky characters to catch. The typical method starts with a sealed bait bucket. Then, these plastic cones are inserted into a hole in the bucket. The fish swim in but cannot get out.

Unfortunately, these cones often get detached from their bait buckets and wash up on the beach.

This coming Saturday, June 8, celebrates oceans–World Oceans Day. There are many ways to join the celebration. One appropriate way would be to join Surfrider Kauai in cleaning up a beach. Here’s a link to their calendar of beach clean-up events. Another would be to attend this children’s play at Kukui Grove.

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