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The fishy smell of seal slammed against the nostrils to reveal the true contents of an ordinary dog kennel positioned in the back of a government truck. Only, there wasn’t any ordinary dog inside. Young RK58 was returning to Kaua‘i from six months of rehabilitation on Hawai‘i Island after a series of misadventures on his birth beach led his mother—RH58, the ordinarily perfect role model of a doting mother—to reject him.

Seal hierarchy is complicated.

RK58 slept peacefully, if smell-ily, on his flight from Hawai‘i Island to Kaua‘i and also during the hour-long drive through traffic to reach the beach where a temporary resting spot awaited him.

A circular “shore pen” was made of connecting fence panels. Inside, a tub for water was buried up to its sides in the sand. A log—about the same size as a six-month-old monk seal—was placed inside for RK58 to snuggle against when sleeping. Also, numerous drift wood sticks were scattered about to provide enrichment for the curious young monk seal. This setup would give RK58 time to transition from captive seal to wild seal.

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Photo credit: Gary Langley

When the dog kennel was opened, RK58 wasted no time in galumphing forward into his shore pen where he’d stay for a couple nights, as is protocol for young Hawaiian monk seals returning to the wild after an extended stay in rehabilitation at Ke Kai Ola, the Monk Seal Hospital, in Kona.

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Photo credit: Gary Langley

RK58 went immediately for the water tub. Over the next two days, he would energetically flop around in it until the tub would eventually crack and break. But the weather was perfect—cloudy with occasional rain—to keep a monk seal cool.

When he wasn’t in his tub, RK58 circumnavigated his shore pen, investigating his new environment. He tossed sticks in the air, kicked up sand with his fore-flippers, and napped alongside the log. In other words, he exhibited hallmark characteristics for a monk seal of his age.

At one point, a telemetry tag was adhered to RK58’s back. This will report back to NOAA his whereabouts. (Eventually, the tag will fall off.) Also, two red identification tags were attached to RK58’s rear flippers. The left reads RK58 and the right RK59. If these ever break and fall off, RK58 will still be identifiable by a microchip PIT tag (much like the kind inserted subcutaneously on dogs and cats) that was slipped under his skin. There’s actually a natural way to identify RK58. He sports a natural bleach mark on the tips of his right fore flipper—much like his mother does, too.

Monk seals are often further identified with a number bleached into their fur. However, no combination of dry seal and sleeping seal presented itself during RK58’s acclimatization period, so he has not yet been bleach-marked.

After two nights in his shore-pen, Dr. Claire Simeone, veterinarian and director of Ke Kai Ola, declared RK58 fit for re-release into the wild.

When RK58’s shore pen was opened, he wasted no time exiting, heading straight for the water.

But when he got washed in the shore break, he paused.

RK58 Release Kim Steutermann Rogers-3

Instead of diving in, RK58 motored down the beach for approximately 100 yards, bypassing an adult female monk seal who happened to be hauled out nearby. A small on-shore break washed his body in salt water a few times, but RK58 did not venture out. It was as if he were investigating his new world. And a big one, at that. Why rush it?

RK58 Release Kim Steutermann Rogers-6

But then, it all clicked. RK58 started swimming, even foraging, chasing after things under water, coming up with stuff in his mouth. He started duck diving under waves. He was a wild seal once again.

The next few weeks and months are critical for RK58. It may take him a few days to figure out what food he likes to eat, but Ke Kai Ola has prepared him. One condition of his release was that he free-feed—that is, catch his own live prey. He’s successfully noshed on live fish. He’s even used his strong jaws to crack open lobster. The bigger concern for any rehabbed wildlife is that they maintain a healthy wariness of people. The fewer interactions he has with humans, the better. Let’s do what we can to ensure RK58’s survival. Let’s keep him a wild seal.

Here are more reports about RK58 and his return to the wild.

We’ve shared details of a monk seal’s annual molt before; however, we’ve never had such good imagery of the near day-by-day progress. Until now. Thanks to a long-time dedicated volunteer named Gary. Thanks, Gary!

What a transformation of RN44.

With the month-long government shutdown, this report is a tad late. Apologies.

Year End Monk Seal Management Stats for 2018:

  • Grand sightings total:
    • 3,253 or 8.9/day monk seal sightings on Kauai in 2018
    • 3,621 or 9.9/day in 2017
    • 3,236 or 8.9/day in 2016
    • 3,321 or 9.1/day in 2015
    • 2,516 or 6.9/day in 2014
  • Kauai population: 60 unique individual seals sighted in 2018 (60 in 2017, 56 in 2016, 53 in 2015, 47 in 2014)
  • Births: 7 total born on Kauai (1 stillborn) and 4 or 5 more Kauai females likely pupped on Niihau
  • Mortalities: no observed mortalities in 2018, however 1 pup was stillborn to first time mother RK52.
  • Niihau Seals: sighted 9 new seals in 2018 (12 in 2017, 6 in 2016, 14 in 2015) likely from Niihau
    • The Kauai team flipper tagged 2 of these.
  • Displacements: 19 total displacements occurred
    • 4 displacements from unsafe or unsuitable locations (R7AA from roads and sidewalks).
    • 15 displacements from Poipu Keiki Pool.
  • Vaccination for morbillivirus efforts:
    • 3 seal pups were fully vaccinated on Kauai.
  • Bleach marking effort:
    • 15 bleach marks were applied

Stranding Responses in 2017:

  • 3 monk seal stranding responses:
    • R376 – a large spinous fish bone was removed from mouth. Seal had lost significant weight due to inability to forage. Seal has since recovered body condition.
    • RK42 – large circle hook removed from weaned pup’s mouth. Pup was not sighted again since day of de-hoooking.
    • RK58 – brought into captivity at Ke Kai Ola for rehab after multiple pup swaps and eventual abandonment by mother seal RK58. Seal to be returned to Kauai for release in Feb, 2019.

December’s Monthly Update:
The Kauai team logged 153 seal sightings in December 2018. This included 26 individually identified seals.

  • Dec: 153
  • Nov: 145
  • Oct: 203
  • Sep: 199
  • Aug: 295
  • July: 414

New:
Flipper tagged two new seals, both subadult males. One tagged as R2XK the other as R8HT.

Updates:

  • RK58 remains at Ke Kai Ola for rehabilitation and is now free-feeding and gaining weight.
  • Poipu Keiki Pool: No displacements this month
  • Bleach markings: 4 bleach marks were applied.
  • Molting: 2 seals molted this month.

Research/Support of PIFSC

  • Sub-sampled scat, molt, and tissue plug samples accordingly.
  • Logged all seal sightings for PIFSC database. Organized photos and reported sightings, molt tallies, survival factors to send to PIFSC.

 

We’re not quite half-way through the first month of the new year, and already the public and volunteers have reported 133 Hawaiian monk seal sightings on Kauai.

In the past few days, several reports have come from Poipu Beach of several seals “cruising” the coastline.

f28 swimmingIt’s hard to positively identify monk seals when they’re in the water; however, this kind of behavior is consistent with males–particularly subordinate males who are looking for females. (There could some anthropomorphic comparisons to teen boys here, if you’d like.)

This behavior of repeatedly swimming up and down the same stretch of beach can go on for 20 to 30 minutes without the males ever hauling out of the water.

For beachgoers, especially at busy Poipu Beach, this behavior can be concerning. One person who called the hotline reporting three cruisers feared the crowds of people on the beach were preventing the seals from hauling out; however, that was likely not the case. When males are cruising, they are on a mission. They are not looking for a comfy place to nap.

Hawaiian monk seals are wild animals–carnivorous wild animals. For safety sake, it’s not a great idea to swim or snorkel among them. This can make a swim at the beach challenging, especially if there are three males swimming laps for 30 minutes offshore at the very spot you want to take a dip in the water.

rk28-cynthia-sterlingIf a female does show up, groups of cruising males could lead to what’s known as “male mobbing,” especially if the female is younger, too. We’ve had females turn up with wounds on their backs due to this very behavior. As this photo below illustrates, some of the wounds can look quite disturbing, but remember monk seals have an amazing capacity to heal.

Another way to view the cruisers is that the drive to reproduce is actively at work–and that’s a necessary component to the recovery of the species.

 

Late last year, the news media got hold of an Hawaiian monk seal story that made headlines around the country. And it wasn’t about a monk seal pup being born on Waikiki Beach. It wasn’t about a hurricane that sunk an island in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument–an island on which monk seals regularly pup. No, this headline news story was about an eel that got stuck up the nose of Hawaiian monk seal.

Sound painful? Check out the photo:

screen shot 2019-01-07 at 9.00.18 pm

PC: Brittany Dolan/NOAA Fisheries

As most followers of this website know, Hawaiian monk seals forage by sticking their noses in the nooks and crannies of coral reefs and by digging their heads under rocks and flipping them over. They do this to shake loose the kind of food they like to eat–octopus, lobster, flat fish, and, yes, eels.

A few years ago, a field biologist on a remote island in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument reported a length of eel sticking out of a juvenile monk seal’s nose. After consulting with the lead veterinarian with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, it was decided intervention would be helpful. The seal was restrained and the lifeless eel removed. No one was quite sure what had happened, but the seal turned out to be fine.

In subsequent years, a few more Hawaiian monk seals have appeared with eels hanging out of their noses. Theories on how the eels ended up in such unfortunate locations vary. One is that in a defensive maneuver, the eel swam up the seal’s nose. Another theory suggests that seal swallowed the seal and then, for some reason, regurgitated the eel by way of the nose.

Yet eels are not considered a threat to Hawaiian monk seals. Only a few of these incidents have been recorded. But there’s really no way of knowing how often it happens.

No reports of similar eel events have been recorded in the Main Hawaiian Islands. However, Hawaiian monk seals on Kauai have gotten themselves in some disconcerting situations involving their noses.

One got a styrofoam cup stuck on his face. During a NOAA-approved attempt at intervention, the seal shook the cup off his face before our NOAA coordinator laid a single finger on him.

Hawaiian monk seal and marine debris

Photo credit: Mary Werthwine

But another seal wasn’t able to shake a plastic cone off his nose by himself. Thankfully, NOAA was there once again to help.

RK54.Susan Johnson

Photo credit: S. Johnson

In light of an enormous amount of publicity received by the monk seal with an eel up the nose, NOAA released this video of the numerous other interventions they conduct in an effort to save Hawaiian monk seals from extinction.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FHMSRP%2Fvideos%2F2195470887374741%2F&show_text=1&width=560

Happy holidays from RK90, your very pregnant sleepy Hawaiian monk seal.

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It’s starting to look a lot like RK90 is pregnant again. She looked much like this last year this time. Then, she disappeared only to re-appear on Kauai in mid-February. It’s presumed she pupped on Niihau–her first known pupping event–which is a good indication that she herself was born there.

RK90 first appeared on Kauai as a juvenile in 2013 with a fish hook in her mouth. It was removed, and at the same time she was flipper-tagged. In May 2017, she turned up again with a large fish hook sticking out of her mouth. It, too, was removed successfully.

In February of this year, RK90 hauled out at the keiki pool in Poipu and was displaced. (Please remember displacements require skilled training and, as always, prior approval from NOAA. Please never attempt this on your own. But please do call the hotline (808-651-7668) when/if you find a monk seal in the Poipu Keiki Pool.)

This past summer, RK90 was repeatedly sighted with R6FQ, a seven year-old-male.

Now, the question is where will RK90 pup this time. She likes to haul out on the south shore and west side, so keep an eye out for her and call the hotline if you see any monk seals with a pup. However, there’s a good chance RK90 will make the 17-mile journey across the Kaulakahi channel to pup on Niihau again.

Here’s a series of recent photos of RK90. This series also happens to provide a good representation of photographs to take when you come across a monk seal on the beach–providing images of all sides (front, rear, belly, back) for NOAA to identify the seal and make a visual health assessment.

Happy holidays!

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Monthly Update: The Kauai team reported 28 individually identified seals in November for a grand total of 145 seal sightings reported to the hotline.

November: 145
October: 203
September: 199
August: 295
July: 414
June: 315
May: 332
April: 302
March: 299

New:

  • Juvenile female R7AA was disturbed by a leashed barking dog at Salt Pond Beach Park and left the area.
  • A seal was harassed at Mahaulepu by group of men making noises at it to elicit a response. They were also playing football very near the seal. The seal left the beach due to the disturbance; however, hauled out again later after the men were gone. The disturbance was witnessed and reported by a member of the public.

Updates:

  • Update: RK58 remains at Ke Kai Ola for rehabilitation. RK58 is now free feeding and gaining weight.
  • Sub-adult male NG00 hauled out at Poipu with the circle hook still in his lip. The original hooking occurred in Sept of 2017. The seal is in excellent body condition, but had just finished molting and was therefore not captured for de-hooking.
  • Poipu Keiki Pool: RK13 was displaced this month. That was her fourth displacement in 2 years. (Remember, this only happens with NOAA approval and by trained individuals.)
  • Bleach markings: 4 bleach marks were applied.
  • Molting: 2 seals molted this month.

Research/Support of PIFSC:

  • Sub-sampled scat, molt, and tissue plug samples accordingly.
  • Logged all seal sightings for PIFSC database. Organized photos and reported sightings, molt tallies, survival factors to send to PIFSC.