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The Marine Mammal Center and The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced last week that three-year-old female RM28 passed away at Ke Kai Ola, the “Monk Seal Hospital,” in Kailua-Kona. They suspect she died from injuries due to severe shark bite trauma.

“Our team is deeply saddened to report the loss of RM28, especially knowing that this three-year-old seal could have played an important role to further boost the population of this endangered species,” said Dr. Sophie Whoriskey, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Veterinarian at Ke Kai Ola, in a statement.

RM28 was a well-known seal around Kauai. Born to RK28 in 2020, last year, RM28 ranked tenth on the list of most reported seals, indicating she liked to haul out at beaches where she was seen–and reported–by beach-goers. The year before, in 2021, she ranked fourth. In her short life, she made news on these pages–for hauling out in the keiki pool in Poipu, triggering her displacement on several occasions. And for an unusual fishing entanglement in June of last year. She hadn’t ingested a fish hook. Nor lodged the hook in her jaw. No, she’d somehow gotten the hook embedded into the external side of her neck. The response team was easily able to free her from the hook. In 2021, when RM28 was eight months old, she was reported with a round chunk of flesh missing above her left fore flipper. The wound was what remained after a cookiecutter shark latched onto her, swiveled, and took off with a plug of her flesh. That wound quickly healed. Unlike, sadly, those from another shark earlier this year.

The statement on RM28’s death from the Marine Mammal Center went on to report:

During the seal’s initial critical care period, Center experts stabilized the animal and began treating RM28 for extensive and severe wounds consistent with shark bite trauma. During the admission exam, the Center confirmed NOAA’s initial assessment and diagnosed the patient with severe shark bite trauma. The Center’s experts noted the animal was in poor body condition, administered antibiotics and pain medication, and also took a series of blood samples and swabs for further analysis. Despite the team’s best efforts, RM28 died in treatment on January 16.

A necropsy, or animal autopsy, was performed the next day to determine the cause of death. After a thorough necropsy exam, Center experts suspect that RM28 likely died directly from the severe trauma or due to complications associated with the trauma. The Center’s team is awaiting bloodwork diagnostics to determine whether the seal also had any underlying health complications. No other immediate findings of significance aside from the trauma and poor state of condition were found during the necropsy exam.

After displaying lethargic behavior, RM28 was rescued in a shallow cove off the Kauaʻi coast on January 11 by NOAA’s trained experts with assistance from the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources’ (DLNR) Division of Aquatic Resources. NOAA received reports of RM28 appearing to be in poor condition the previous day. The animal was immediately brought to a DLNR facility on Kauaʻi for initial assessment and triage care. NOAA experts diagnosed the seal with severe wounds consistent with shark bite trauma and noted the animal was in poor condition.

RM28 was airlifted and transferred into the Center’s care at Ke Kai Ola via the U.S. Coast Guard for further rehabilitation on January 12. This action was taken after NOAA experts determined the animal needed long-term rehabilitative care and had stabilized enough for transport.

“Thanks to the numerous reports from concerned residents about this seal’s injuries, we were able to respond quickly and determine that RM28 needed veterinary care. She was a well-known seal on the beaches of Kauaʻi, and we are saddened by this loss.” said Jamie Thomton, NOAA Fisheries’ Kauaʻi Response Coordinator.

Although shark attacks are not uncommon, negative human interaction, fisheries interaction via hooking and entanglements, and diseases like toxoplasmosis are the main threats the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population faces on the main Hawaiian Islands.

As the only partner organization permitted by NOAA to treat and rehabilitate Hawaiian monk seals, The Marine Mammal Center is proud that nearly 30 percent of monk seals that are alive today are due to conservation efforts led by NOAA and partners like the Center.

Since 2014, the Center has rehabilitated and released 37 monk seals, most of which have been rescued from and returned to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as part of the Center’s partnership with NOAA Fisheries, utilizing resources in the area to identify seals in need, rescue and rehabilitate them, and give them a second chance at life.

Here’s another recap for 2021. This list identifies the top ten Hawaiian monk seals “reported” on Kauai during 2022. “Reported” seals are those that were called in—and identified—to the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui hotline. (See a monk seal on the beach? Report it to 808-651-7668.)

However, what’s not included in this list are mom/pup reports. Because “pup watches” by dedicated volunteers tend to elevate pup “reported” numbers and because moms spend the first four to six weeks of their pups’ lives right by their sides, the reports of the mom/pup days are not included.

Keep in mind, other things affect this list. Monk seals often have favorite locations where they haul out. 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. Molting monk seals get reported more often, too. As well, young monk seals are often sighted and reported more, too, because they tend to hang around and make themselves noticed;-) Lastly, volunteers impact this number, too. Those dedicated volunteers who regularly scout certain beaches for monk seals (thank you very much) will also help inflate a certain seal’s confirmed reports.

Take a look at the Top Ten list for 2022:

  1. RF28: 108 confirmed sightings. Born in 2014 to R028 (who died of toxo after valiant try by veterinarians to treat and save her). Bottom lip scar left side. Most telling ID: Natural bleach mark over left shoulder. left tag gone. Bottom right tag broken.
  2. RK58: 104 confirmed sightings. Born on 7/16 in 2018 to RH58. Pup switch resulted in abandonment at 19 days age. Raised at Ke Kai Ola. Released from captivity on 2/11/2019. Returned to Ke Kai Ola for rehab 2/16/21 due to infected dog bites.
  3. RG58: 97 confirmed sightings. Born 2015 to RH58. Natural bleach above tail, line scar left rear. One of our biggest males.
  4. TempV11: 74 confirmed sightings. Subadult male/ bleached marked Feb. 2022 because too few scars to ID. Became a regular at Poipu in spring 2022. Pit scar mid back, scar left neck.
  5. R371: 70 confirmed sightings. Niihau female w/pup 2017.  Large shark bite right rump and in front right fore flipper, natural bleach mark on top of head, pit scar base of left fore flipper, hook scar left corner of mouth, cookie cutter right shoulder, crescent flap scar belly. Likes to hang out at Mahaulepu and Shipwrecks.
  6. RM36: 68 confirmed sightings. Nice big sub-abult female. Tagged 4/21/2021. Pup of RB00; born 3/15/2020. Cookie cutter scar on right shoulder.
  7. R2XW: 67 confirmed sightings. Very small juvenile female from Niihau. Tagged 4/5/2021 at Glass Beach Eleele. 88 cm auxiliary girth. 
  8. RQ52: 56 confirmed sightings. Born to R400 at Polihale on 6/25/2022. Nursed for 38 days. Translocated to safer location after weaning. Eventually, she moved back to the west side.
  9. R7AA: 54 confirmed sightings. New small Niihau female seal to Kauai 6/2017. Monitored for back abscess, caught and treated and tagged 9/2017. Over the years she has demonstrated unique behavior when molting—moves high up the beach at night and onto resort furniture, parking lots and streets, so must be closely monitored.
  10. RM28: 51 confirmed sightings. Born to RK28 in 2020. De-hooked in June 2022. Also involved in displacements at Poipu keiki pool.

Grand sightings total: 

o   3,381 or 9.3 seals sightings/day on Kauai in 2022

o   2,377 or 6.5/day in 2021

o   2,005 or 5.5/day in 2020

o   3,154 or 8.9/day in 2019

o   3,253 or 8.9/day in 2018

o   3,621 or 9.9/day in 2017 

o   3,236 or 8.9/day in 2016

o   3,321 or 9.1/day in 2015

o   2,516 or 6.9/day in 2014

Kauai population: 

o   69 unique individual seals sighted on Kauai in 2022

o   65 in 2021

o   67 in 2020

o   67 in 2019

o   60 in 2018

o   60 in 2017

o   56 in 2016

o   53 in 2015

o   47 in 2014

Births: 3 total born on Kauai in 2022

Mortalities: 1 confirmed mortality in 2022:

o   R7GM: adult female died from birthing complications related to twin full-term fetuses.

Niihau Seals (likely): sighted a minimum of 9 new seals in 2022, but likely more as several new untagged seals had no markings or scars so no temporary IDs were given (8 in 2021, 8 in 2020, 5 in 2019, 9 in 2018, 12 in 2017, 6 in 2016, 14 in 2015).

Displacements: 21 total displacements occurred.

o   21 displacements from the Poipu Keiki Pool. 

Vaccination for morbillivirus efforts: 

o   2 seals were vaccinated

Bleach marking effort: 

o   14 bleach marks were applied

Stranding Responses in 2022:

Hawaiian monk seal responses: 

o   RM28: Hooked. Captured and hook removed on the beach by the Kauai team.

o   RP28: Hooked. Leader trimmed, seal then threw hook on own.

o   R2XW: Hooked. Leader trimmed. Follow-up response required vet support to sedate and removed hook from around mandible. Procedure conducted at DLNR baseyard. 

Even turtles, it seems, like a quiet place to take a nap. Thankfully, last week, when one honu got itself into a rather tight place among some boulders along the jetty at Nawiliwili Harbor, a couple of kind beachgoers saw and went to great lengths to help it. The stranded honu, and subsequent effort to free it, even caught the attention of local news stations.

The tight location wasn’t the only challenge. When the stranding crew arrived in the evening, it was low tide. Some rocks and boulders had been moved to access the turtle; however, the team had to wait until the next morning when the tide returned to “float” the turtle. That made is possible to turn the honu around and extricate it from the opening. An in-field exam showed no injuries, and once the turtle was released into the water, it made a hasty retreat. The opening in the jetty wall was filled with rocks, so, hopefully, no other turtle decides to camp overnight in the same spot.

Spot an injured or dead sea turtle? Call the Hawaiʻi statewide NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline at (888) 256-9840. Stranding teams are always on stand-by 24/7, including weekends and holidays.

PC: S. Rossiter.

Three weeks ago, we shared a scientific journal that published a paper on the first detection of polymastia in a Mediterranean monk seal. Then, last week, a report to the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui resulted in this photo of an Hawaiian monk seal female with, possibly, five nipples (circled in orange).

This is the first known sighting of this untagged seal. She’s suspected to be a sub-adult, likely never pupped yet, so it’s unknown whether all five nipples express milk.

The existence of extra mammary glands is a condition known as polymastia.

Note: The yellow circle is believed to be a scar, not a nipple.

Hawaiian monk seals have been studied for over 30 years. Yet the discoveries and learning continue every day.

RH58 and RK58 in 2018.

Many predictions came with the start of the new millennium, perhaps, save one: The birth of a female Hawaiian monk seal who would survive more than 22 years—and counting—and make a significant contribution to the recovery of the species. She was born in 2000 at Mahaulepu on the southeast coast of Kauai. Because that coastline is fairly rugged, it was decided to translocate her upon weaning to a spot that would give her as favorable a start in life as possible. This was back when the population of Hawaiian monk seals across the archipelago was declining every year and few were sighted in the Main Hawaiian Islands. When she was translocated, she was also flipper-tagged with RH58 on her left flipper and RH59 on her right. Both have since broken off.

RH58, also known to some as “Rocky,” started her prolific pupping history at age six. Since then, she’s pupped 14 times, skipping only three years. Eight of those pups were female. Six of the 14 are still regularly sighted, although they now range across the main Hawaiian Islands. The collective of RH58’s pups illustrate the many challenges facing Hawaiian monk seals in the Main Hawaiian Islands.

Here’s a recap and status of her offspring.

2006: RO12, male, last known sighting 2007.

2007: RB00, female, spends most of her time around Hawaii Island, returning to Kauai to pup.

2009: RA00, female, required veterinary intervention to investigate due to weight loss, disappeared 2011.

2010: RT12, male, died in 2016 on Oahu likely due to drowning in a fisheries interaction.

2011: RK52, female, birthed two pups (the first stillborn; the second, RL52, was thriving until her death due to suspicious circumstances. Hasn’t been seen since February 2021.

2012: RL17, female. Died from unknown causes.

2013: RN44, male. Has become one of the dominant males on Kauai, routinely seen all over the island.

2014: RF58, female. Survived a dog attack that left her with more than 60 bite marks on her body and lead to several abscesses. A NOAA veterinary team administered antibiotics. Unfortunately, RF58 died in a suspicious incident when she was less than one year old. 

2015: RG58, male. Currently THE dominant male on Kauai. Seen all over the island, constantly proving that he’s the man.

2017: RJ58, female, known as “Kaimana,” because she was born at Kaimana Beach, Waikiki, Oahu; first known seal born at Waikiki. She was translocated at weaning and is doing well on Oahu. 

2018: RK58, male. After numerous pup-switches that left him in a vulernable situaiton, he was raised at Ke Kai Ola on Hawaii Island and subsequently released into the wild. In 2021, he was attacked by dogs and went back to Ke Kai Ola for rehabilitation. He is currently thriving and commonly sighted around Kauai.

2019: RL58, female. Last seen on Kauai in Nov. 2020.

2020: RM58, female. Doing great. Routinely seen around Kauai.

2022: RQ58, male. Born at Kaimana Beach in Waikiki on Oahu. He was translocated upon weaning and is currently doing well on Oahu.

Update: 

The Kauai team logged 243 seal sightings this month. This included 30 individually identified seals.

  • November: 243
  • October: 277
  • September: 400
  • August: 320
  • July: 311
  • June: 283
  • May: 248
  • April: 294
  • March: 292
  • February: 233
  • January: 233
  • December: 267
  • November: 168

New:

·       A dog barked at and chased a seal into the water at Salt Pond Beach Park. No contact was made between the seal and dog. DOCARE quickly responded and issued a citation to the dog owner who made no attempt to intervene and continued to allow the dog to roam freely. 

Updates:

·       Five large dogs harassed and possibly bit two adult seals at Makua (a.k.a Tunnels Beach) near Cannon’s surf break. It appeared one man brought all five dogs to the beach and allowed them to run off leash and did very little to stop them from harassing and chasing the seal off the beach. Photos were submitted of the dogs’ owner, and sent to DOCARE, OLE, and Humane Society for further action. All seals seen in the area since are in good health and show no signs of dog bite injuries.

·       Continue to closely monitor yearling RP32 who is in thin body condition. The seal is likely in pre-molt and has been hauling out at his birth beach.

Molting: Two seals molted this past month.

Bleach Marking: Five seals were bleach marked (many new Niihau seals in the Poipu area).

Vaccination: Booster vaccinated weaned pup RQ78.

A recent scientific publication in Aquatic Mammals shared the first detection of polymastia in the Mediterranean monk seal. 

The Mediterranean monk seal is one of the rarest mammals worldwide, even more endangered than the Hawaiian monk seal. Both belong to the family of Phocidae, also known as earless or true seals. But both species differ from other members of this family in that they have four nipples, instead of two. Typically, the nipples are arranged two on each side of the belly with the navel in the center. Similar to the layout of dots on a domino symbolizing the number five.

Extra mammary glands is a condition known as polymastia.

The paper reported the first two known cases of polymastia in Mediterranean monk seals. And it happened, pretty much, by accident.

Lead author on the paper Miguel Ángel Cedenilla says, the detection of the first case was pure serendipity. In a Facebook post, he’s quoted as saying, “In November 2016, while trying to tag a female on Deserta Grande Island with a Fastloc GPS, in full development of the LIFE MADEIRA MONK SEAL project, we realized something strange. Of the four females that had given birth, one had lost her calf. But she acted as a foster mother to the other pups. Our surprise was to see that three jets of milk from three well-separated points emanated from her belly. Clearly, that female had 3 active teats on her right flank. It was Rosa Pires who came up with the most appropriate name possible to call this new female: ‘Maminhas.’ which in Portuguese means ‘mamas.’”

All total, this Mediterranean monk seal had five nipples.

Then, in March 2020, another Mediterranean with polymastia was discovered. 

According to the paper, “The second case was observed at the Cabo Blanco monk seal colony (Western Sahara/ Mauritania) through photo-identification pictures taken of breeding female 2363, “Oca,” in March 2020. Although monitored since 2011, and having had at least three pups in 2012, 2014, and 2020, no lactation of this female had been recorded, and it was not possible to know if the 5th nipple was active in milk production.”

There happens to be a Hawaiian monk seal well-known around Kauai’ as “Triple Nipple.” As the nickname implies, she has three nipples. Not that she has a bonus nipple and, hence, a total of five. She has a total of three nipples, instead of the more common four. Her scientific ID is RK14; however, she’s currently untagged, so the best way to ID her is by the presence of her three nipples.

Female Mediterranean monk seal on side with three nipples exposed and streaming milk.
Nursing Mediterranean monk seal.

PC: Aquatic Mammals Journal

Right now, there’s a very visible monk seal hanging out at Poipu. He’s been there for a week, seemingly day and night. This is very natural. Approximately, once a year, Hawaiian monk seals go through a “catastrophic molt,” meaning they lose the top layer of skin and fur in one concentrated period of time, rather than continually throughout the year. The seal at Poipu is an untagged male (with a temp ID of V3) whose molt is about 70% complete. 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.

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.

Here’s a series of photos from a few years ago that show the molting progression.

Stories related to this research:

Motherload: The Story of a Fertile Turtle in the Hawaiian Islands

A Continuation of Motherload: The Story of a Fertile Turtle in the Hawaiian Islands

Punahele: A Green Sea Turtle’s Journey to “Destination Unknown”

Destination Known: Punahele’s Safe Return Home from Lalo

Turtle and Seal Biologists Deploy to Papahānaumokuākea for the 2022 Field Season