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Monk Seal Monday #44: Cruising Seals

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.

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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:

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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.

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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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Field Report: November

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.

 

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Monk Seal Monday #41: R2XK

Last week, we shared the story of a Niihau-tagged monk seal. Well, this week, we have another possible Niihau monk seal. Estimated to be a three-year-old sub-adult, this seal has been sighted at PMRF on two, possibly three times–using his unique scars to identify him.

There’s always a possibility that this or other untagged monk seals that seem to go back and forth between Kauai and Niihau was actually born on Kauai. For the past two years, for example, we’ve had late-season pups born on the remote Napali Coast. Unfortunately, they don’t wean until September when seas start to kick up for winter and preclude our ability to make safe beach landings to flipper-tag.

Wherever this monk seal was born, he’s now officially known as R2XK; however, his two flipper tags are 2XK and 2XL. (Add some super sharp binoculars to your holiday gift list to help read those tags and distinguish those letters!) Because he was tagged on Kauai, his tags are red with white lettering.

Here are some photographs of the new-to-us Hawaiian monk seal.

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Monk Seal Monday #40: NG00

Often, when an unknown Hawaiian monk seal turns up on Kauai’s shoreline, it’s assumed to have ventured over from Niihau. Very few monk seals from Niihau have been flipper-tagged, so there’s really no telling. But a seal known as NG00 has been flipper-tagged, and his tag is black with light-colored lettering.

In May 2016, juvenile NG00 popped up on a Kauai beach with a fish hook in his mouth. With NOAA approval, a trained team captured him and removed the hook.

In September 2017, the public reported another monk seal with a fish hook in his mouth. The photos resembled NG00.

Then, in early January of this year, NG00 was sighted on a west side Kauai beach, and a team responded to find a fish hook (but no trailing line) stuck in the left corner of his mouth. The bad news was NG00 was hauled out on rocks–not a good location for capture. The good news was that the location of the hooking was not life-threatening. The decision was to wait until he hauled up in a safe place before intervening.

Later in January, NG00 was reported on Niihau.

He reappeared on Kauai in April, still sporting the hook in the left corner of his mouth. Even so, he was in good body condition, indicating the hook was not hampering his ability to feed. Once again, his chosen haul-out location was rocky and not safe for capture.

NG00 wasn’t reported on Kauai again until late November. This time, he was on a sand, hauled out next to another seal (3CX). The circle hook was still lodged in his cheek, and he was still in good body condition. But NG00 had also recently molted and, therefore, it was determined he would not be captured. When monk seals go through their annual molt, they spend more time on the beach resting while the top layer of skin and fur along with it falls out in patches than they spend foraging. Molting eats up energy stores, so the weeks leading up to and after a molt are usually considered hands-off.

However, in a couple weeks, if NG00 happens to haul out in a safe location, NOAA will consider intervening to remove the hook. So, in the coming weeks, if you see a freshly-molted juvenile monk seal with black flipper tags and a fish hook in his lower lip, please call the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui at 808-651-7668.

 

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Field Report: October

Monthly Update: The Kauai team reported 27 individually identified seals in October for a grand total of 203 seal sightings reported to the hotline.

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

New:

  • Female weanling RKA6 was sighted with a hook in her mouth along with 6-8 inches of monofilament line trailing. By the time response staff arrived, she had thrown the hook on her own.

Updates:

  • RK58 remains at Ke Kai Ola for rehabilitation, gaining weight and learning to free-feed.
  • Adult female Temp 337 who was previously reported with mobbing wounds continues to heal and is sighted occasionally on the West Side.
  • Several public reports indicate the unidentified mom/pup pair along Napali Coast are doing well. By now, pup has weaned.
  • Poipu Keiki Pool: No displacements this month.
  • Bleach markings: 1 bleach mark was applied.
  • Molting: 2 seals molted at busy beaches 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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