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Monk Seal Monday #114: R1KY and Her Scars

The Hawaiian monk seal known as R1KY has been reported to the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui hotline in 2020 a total of 45 times. In May and June, several callers reported her on the east side resting in lagoon areas, her head propped on the reef. Other times, she was reported sleeping in shallows, allowing wave-wash to toss her around. At least, once, she was reported to be dead. 

Obviously, these were disconcerting reports, especially since R1KY was quite large at the time and likely pregnant. Also, because this type of logging behavior has been consistent with pregnant Hawaiian monk seals who have died due to toxoplasmosis. 

For five weeks starting mid-July, no one reported R1KY.

Then, on August 13, R1KY appeared on a west side beach, her body condition thin and consistent with a mom who has just weaned a pup. As she’s likely done before, R1KY high-tailed it across the Kaulakahi Channel and pupped on Niihau. 

Since then, she’s been reported numerous times. She’s put on weight and, right on schedule with female monk seal biology, she’s molted, too. In fact, she’s looking great. What’s more, her clean coat shows off her numerous scars. Not that anyone’s counting, but it could be R1KY sports the most scars of any living Hawaiian monk seal. 

Here are a few photos (courtesy J. Thomton) showcasing her many scars and his best guesses as to what caused them. Scars are often used to identify seals, especially those not flipper-tagged. Or if flipper tags are not visible. This is another reason why photographs are super helpful when reporting monk seals to the hotline. Sometimes, even cell phone photographs texted to the hotline can provide the necessary information to identify an individual seal. Always try to get a photo with a unique body identifier like a scar. Take a look at this impressive arrays of scars.

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In 2019, the south shore volunteer team was managing two, three, four and sometimes as many as six or seven seals at Poipu at the same time. Challenging times, indeed. Sometimes all seals clustered in one zone; sometimes they spread out over two or even three zones. Of course, the most challenging spot to manage human/seal interactions was the spot that seals liked most, which happened to be the main snorkeling water entrance/exit. In one emergency, lifeguards had to carry a drowning victim over two resting seals, literally, to bring her ashore for CPR. The good news is the rescue was a success, and the person recovered fully.

Then, earlier this year, when the COVID stay-at-home orders were instituted, the volunteer program was placed on hold, and tourism came to a virtual halt. We expected that the seals at Poipu would enjoy resting undisturbed. However, since the pandemic began, the seals seem to have disappeared from the Poipu area. One reason may be there are fewer people on the beaches, so there are fewer calls coming in the hotline. Make sense. But was there something else going on?

Here’s what a review of the data from the daily sightings log revealed:

As expected the number of seals reported in the Poipu area during April-August of this year dropped to a total of 73 sightings. The prior year, during the same five month window, there were a total of 257 reported seal sightings.

A comparison of the individual seals sighted in Poipu in 2019 versus 2020 during that same April-August window revealed the number of unique seals identified in the Poipu area dropped from 21 unique seals in 2019 to 12 in 2020. Too, there’s a slightly different cast of characters hauling out at Poipu this year.

Notably, the notorious “Poipu boys,” a group of rough-housing male seals, have split up with several moving to Oahu, and a couple others moving back to Niihau. From that notorious group, only RG58 remains, and he’s often spotted on the rocks near Brenneckes Beach these days.

Also, two seals from 2019 that occasionally hauled out at Poipu have died—RK30 of old age late last year and RJ36 of a hook ingestion several months ago. Apart from the loss of these two, all the other Poipu regulars of last year are still alive, based on sighting reports across the state.

What this tells us is seal behavior isn’t static, and just when you come to expect the expected out of a seal or group of seals or a particular haul-out location, things change.  As the old philosopher Heroclitus said, “Change is the only constant in life.” Guess he was talking about seals, too.

For more specifics take a look at the list of seals seen in 2019 and 2020.

April through August 2019 – These 21 individuals comprised the 257 reported seal sightings in the Poipu area from Shipwrecks to Lawai Beach):

NG00 -sighted at PMRF in 2020 and frequently on Niihau
R1KY
R1NI
R336 – rare seal
R339 – now an Oahu regular
R376
R3CX – now an Oahu regular
R402 – rare seal
R6FQ – sighted elsewhere on Kauai on 2019 and 2020
R7AA
RF28 – now an Oahu regular
RF30
RG22 – now an Oahu regular
RG58
RH38
RJ36 
RK30 – died of old age in late 2019
RK36 – occasional visitor from Oahu
RK90
RN02 – sighted at PMRF in 2020 and frequently on Niihau
RW22 – occasional visitor from Oahu

April through August 2020 – These 12 unique individuals made up the 73 reported seal sightings in the Poipu area (Shipwrecks to Lawai Beach): 

R1KY
R1NI
R339
R340 – rarely sighted on Kauai
R376
R407 – rarely sighted on Kauai
R7AA
RF30
RG58
RH38
RJ36 – died from hook ingestion in the first half of 2020
RK90

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Field Report: May 2020

Monthly Update: The Kauai team logged 147 seal sightings this month. This included 31 individually identified seals.

May: 147
April: 117
March: 200
February: 264
January: 319
December: 180
November: 223
October: 258
September: 203
August: 324
July: 239
June: 179
May: 262

New Issues

·       RKA6, a 2 year-old female, was found dead along the coast of the south shore. The carcass was severely decomposed, however a flipper tag was present. An examination found all organs liquefied and of little scientific valued. Following COVID-19 protocols, the seal was buried on site. Cause of death determination was not possible due to severe carcass decomposition, however no obvious signs of injury or illness were observed. The seal was in good body condition at the time of death.

·       Adult female R1KY appears pregnant and was observed logging in shallow water on two occasions. Her behavior appeared lethargic and odd, allowing wave wash to roll her around in an unusual manner. Two sightings since have found her acting normal, and she is still large and likely to pup soon.

·       Adult female RF30 was reported with a possible small j-hook in the upper lip. After further assessment and photographs, it appeared to either be a very small hook, which is of little concern, or simply organic matter stuck in her vibrissae.   

·       Received a report of two loose pit bulls on Moloaa Beach at the same time as a hauled-out seal. DOCARE was notified, but unable to respond. The Kauai Humane Society knew of these dogs and have captured them in the past. The seal and dogs were all gone by the time NOAA arrived. There was no evidence or tracks in the sand of dogs attacking or chasing a seal. The Humane Society will be contacting the dog’s owner.

Updates:

·       Due to COVID-19 stay-at-home measures, our new methods of monitoring continue, which include:

o   Weekly surveys conducted by NOAA and DLNR

o   DAR staff conducting weekly island wide Creel Surveys

o   PMRF staff continuing to send in routine reports and photos

o   Requesting that people who call the hotline to report seals assist us by sending several photos and setting-up SRA signs or sticks.

·       The juvenile pup, PK1, continues to be resighted at her birth beach and is in good health.

Volunteers:

·       The volunteer program continues to be on hold due to COVID-19. No volunteers were sent out in the field, however we continue to communicate with volunteers by email, the weekly blog, and by phone.

Research/Support of Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (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.

 

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Field Report: January 2020

Monthly Update: The Kauai team logged 319 seal sightings this month. This included 39 individually identified seals.

January 319
December: 180
November: 223
October: 258
September: 203
August: 324
July: 239
June: 179
May: 262
April: 348
March: 350
Feb: 303

New:

·       As a volunteer arrived to assess a seal that had recently hauled out, she observed a man poking adult female R1KY with a stick. The volunteer conducted outreach and found the seal resting normally.

·       The general public reported that a small seal hauled out at Shipwrecks Beach on the south shore and was quickly chased back into the water by an off-leash dog. The seal was unharmed.

Updates:

·       Subadult female R7AA, dehooked the previous month, was re-sighted 4 times in January in good condition and completely healed from the hooking.

·       Five of the six pups born in 2019 have been sighted recently and continue to thrive, the sixth is likely on the remote Na Pali Coast.

·       Displacements: RJ36 was displaced (with permission from NOAA) from the Poipu Keiki Pool for the first time. Two weeks later he hauled out on the Keiki Pool Beach again, but was in an unsafe location for displacement so was not hazed off the beach.

·       Molting: RN44 molted at a remote north shore beach and RK90 molted at a remote west side beach, requiring little volunteer response and outreach effort. Adult female R313 also appears freshly molted.

·       Bleach marking: 2 applied this month.

Research/Support of Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center:

·       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.

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In today’s local newspaper, you may have read about an international seal study that has implications right here in Hawaii.

The Garden Island reported the story about a long-term research study in Scotland. NOAA’s research ecologist Stacie Robinson told Jessica Else of The Garden Island, “Some of the lines of thinking (in the St. Andrews research) are applicable to Hawaiian monk seals,” Robinson said. “We’re doing something that’s logically similar, but we’re using the patterns of our citizen science reports to get the information.”

Robinson’s study is due out soon, and it likely includes information provided by Kauai’s own dedicated crew of citizen scientists, as well as, the general public and concerned visitors who call the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Hui’s hotline to report seal sightings. According to Robinson, all this helps scientists working in the recovery of Hawaiian monk seals by providing critical information about “vital rates,” things like reproductive, body condition, and survival rates.

Today, the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Hotline rang with one such report. The caller also provided distant cell phone photos that allowed DLNR’s Mimi Olry to identify the seal–even without the observation of a the seal’s rear flipper tag. (Ironically, this seal only has one rear flipper tag, because when she was flipper-tagged in 2015 when she was an estimated three years of age, the procedure was interrupted by an incoming wave.)

The key to the seal’s ID was that the caller texted full-length body shots–front and back–as well as a head-on and tail-first photographs. All were taken, of course, from a respectful distance. Too, the caller provided location photos to make it easier for our volunteer to find the seal.

This particular seal has some significant natural identifiers–a cookie cutter shark scar on her back, a scar across her chest from a suspected shark bite, and a missing digit on her left fore flipper.

Do you know who she is?

What’s more, the photos indicated she just might be pregnant. Here are two of the photos.

Resized_20191125_143207Resized_20191125_143151

As is general protocol, a trained volunteered was dispatched to follow up and perform the usual health check to ensure there were no entanglements wrapped around the seal or fishing line projecting from the seal’s mouth. Our volunteer’s report confirmed that this seal was R1KY.

DSCN0419

PC: K. Bove

DSCN0416

PC: K. Bove

 

 

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Field Report: June

The Kauai team logged 179 seal sightings this month (262 in May, 348 in April, 350 in March, 303 in Feb). This included 32 individually identified seals.

June: 179
May: 262
April: 348
March: 350
Feb: 303
Jan: 284

New:

  • Two male seals, RG22 and R3CX. were displaced from Poipu. (This is always done by trained personnel.)
  • Two adult seals, male RN02 and female R1KY were displaced off a beach road at the end of the Burns Field runway at Salt Pond Beach Park. Lifeguards assisted by closing the road until displacement occurred. (Again, this is only conducted with prior approval and by trained personnel.)

Updates:

  • Discussions and plans were set in place this month for the return and release of RH38 in July.
  • 2019 pups RL08 and RL52 continue to thrive at various north shore beaches.
  • Displacements: 6 displacements occurred this month. Two of these displacements were from the keiki pool, subadult male R3CX, which was his 4thdisplacement, and subadult female R7AA, which was her second displacement.
  • Molting: no seals were observed molting this month.
  • Vaccinations: Pup RL52 was given a booster vaccination this month.

Research/Support of Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (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.

 

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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.

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face_seal_J36_male_12DEC17_DLOn July 19, 2017, our second pup of the year was tagged RJ36 (born to RK30) at his natal birth site along a stretch of Napali Coast. But he wasn’t officially re-sighted again until late in the afternoon last week Tuesday when a field biologist at Pacific Missile Range Facility reported two seals had hauled out along Kauai’s southwestern shore. One was R8HY and the other turned out to be RJ36. The field biologist observed some unusual scars just forward of the weaner’s left fore flipper and across his dorsal above his rear flippers.

tail_seal_J36_male_12DEC17_DLAfter reviewing photos of RJ36 with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP), the consensus is RJ36 had an encounter with a shark. The good news is RJ36 appears to be in good health. His wounds have healed, and he’s looking nice and plump.

left_seal_J36_male_12DEC17_DL

In the Main Hawaiian Islands, HMSRP does not rank sharks as a major threat to monk seal survival. According to HMSRP, there have been no documented cases of mortality from sharks in the Main Hawaiian Islands. However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t happened, as those events probably go completely undetected.

RJ36 isn’t Kauai’s only known seal with suspected shark encounters.

There’s also RJ36’s mom, RK30, who was first sighted as an adult by the HMSRP in 2005, already with what’s possibly a scar from a shark bite. She also has a dozen or more cookie cutter shark scars dotting her body.

More recently, another mature female RK13 was sighted in 2011 with two apparent shark wounds–one above her left fore flipper and the other on her right ventral side. We reported on it here. She was regularly sighted along Kapaa’s canals as she recovered from her injuries. She was also pregnant at the time but eventually gave birth to a healthy pup, RL10. Then, in May of this year, we reported here that RK13 was sighted with an unsightly wound to her nares (nostrils), possibly due to a shark bite. Monk seals have an amazing ability to heal themselves through a process called “tissue granulation,” and RK13’s wound healed nicely.

20170426,Fuji,RK13(Miyashiro)

There are two other known seals with shark wounds. RH92 was a newly weaned pup in 2016 when she turned up with a fresh and deep cookie cutter shark wound on her head.

RICOH IMAGING

R1KY has a large shark bite scar below her right fore flipper, most visible on her dorsal side. R1KY

It’s impossible to know for sure that all these scars are due to sharks and specifically what kind of shark; however, three shark species are common suspects:

  1. Tiger: Considered an apex predator, Tiger sharks grow to lengths of 18 feet and longer, wearing up to 2,000 pounds. This shark inhabits coastal and pelagic waters. Tiger sharks mature slowly and pup in litters of 35 to 55 individuals. Their name comes from the dark, vertical stripes that, interestingly, lighten in color as they age. They can live 30 to 40 years. They eat a wide variety of marine animals and carrion and have been called, “the garbage can of the sea.”
  2. Cookiecutter: The cookiecutter shark, also called the cigar shark, lives in warm, oceanic waters worldwide and particularly near islands. Its common name comes from the cookie cutter-like wounds it leaves in its prey. It lives at depths of 3,200 feet during the day but migrates up the water column at night to feed. To feed, the fish uses its suction cup-like lips to attach itself onto prey. Then, it spins its body, using the row of serrated teeth on its lower jaw to remove a plug of flesh, leaving behind crater-like wounds that are two inches across and approximately two-and-a-half inches deep.
  3. Galapagos: This shark grows to 10 feet in length and generally eats bottom fishes and cephalopods. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where approximately 85 percent of the Hawaiian monk seal species lives, Galapagos sharks have been recorded predating on monk seal pups in nearshore waters around French Frigate Shoals. It’s hypothesized that a small group of sharks are involved in this behavior. You can read more about this unusual mortality event and mitigation efforts here.

Not all appearances of sharks spell trouble for monk seals, as this video from National Geographic’s CritterCam shows. At 1:50, you’ll see sharks in the foreground but no interaction between the species. And at 4:42, you’ll see the Crittercam-toting monk seal chase off a couple reef sharks.

 

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Field Report: Winter 2016

Field Report: Winter 2016

For the first four months of 2016, a total of 1,094 seal sightings were logged via the Hawai‘i Monk Seal hotline on Kaua‘i. This breaks down to:

  • January: 286
  • February: 227
  • March: 289
  • April: 292

March Seal Deaths: Two seals were lost in March. On Kaua`i, RG13 a yearling female, was found dead in the Lihi Canal in Kapa`a. Also, RT12, born on Kauai, a 6-year old male that had been living on O‘ahu was found washed up dead. Carcasses were collected and investigated by law enforcement and biologists, and then thoroughly examined by marine mammal veterinarians . Tissues were sent for further investigation for cause of death, as nothing was found on gross necropsy. Both RG13 and RT12 were seen healthy and behaving normally days before death, and they were in good body condition. Each necropsy indicated acute death and histopathology results provided no indication of disease or injury. Inconclusive results such as these are challenging, however one likely cause that is of great concern is acute death by entrapment underwater causing wet, not dry drowning.

Seal of Behavioral Concern, R1KY: Mid April, a young adult female R1KY, originally from Ni’ihau and primarily sighted at Salt Ponds and Poipu, suddenly started to swim with snorkelers and the many swimmers at Poipu county beach park. Previously she was very social with other seals of varying ages. With no seals around, she began following swimmers in the water and onto shore with an avid and unsafe interest for her and the public. R1YK’s behavior could escalate into “seal play” or mating behavior of biting and holding people down in the water. NOAA and DLNR coordinators, researchers, and managers have been in discussions and have implemented a plan. If you see R1KY (she has a bleach mark on her back “V01” and also a red tag on the left rear flipper 1KY) appear between Sheraton and Brennekes beach, please report her to the hotline (808-651- 7668) . Remember! If a seal is swimming among people DO NOT call people out of the water or bring attention to the seal, as this may cause panic and a possible drowning.

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2014 Year-End Report

Monk Seal Management Summary for Kauai in 2014:

2014 was a busy and promising year for monk seal recovery on Kauai. Below are some of the numbers we tallied based on reports submitted by the public and efforts by volunteers and staff members. (Please note, these are only the numbers for Kauai and don’t represent the larger picture of monk seal recovery in the Hawaiian islands.)

Grand sightings total: 2​,516 monk seal sightings on Kauai in 2014! (6.9 seals per day).
Kauai population: 47 unique individual seals sighted in 2014.

Births:

  • ​5 seal pups born (3 male and 2 female).
  • 3 pregnant females likely pupped on Niihau (departed pregnant, returned thin).

Mortalities: 4 seals died.

  • 2 were 2014 pups (PK5 – dog attack, and RF58 – intentionally killed, investigation is ongoing)
  • ​1 was a ​previously unknown yearling (R4DD​ – cause of death was likely drowning)
  • ​​1 ​was a ​juvenile from 2012 cohort (RL17 ​ – cause of death unknown).​
New Seals: we sighted 11 new seals in 2014, likely from Niihau.

  • 4 were flipper tagged​​ (R4DD, R8HE, R8HP, R1KY).
  • ​1 was captured for ​surgical removal of an injured eye (R1KU)​ and eventually released on Niihau​.
  • ​3 were ​bleach marked for temporary identification.

hawaiian monk seal, RF30

Photo credit: M. Miyashiro

The largest and strongest pup of the year is female RF30. Based on her excellent body condition, it is obvious that she quickly learned to forage on her own after weaning.  She was routinely sighted during the final few months of 2014 along the east side of Kauai.

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