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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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Last Friday, on “Endangered Species Day,” PK2 was tagged. He’s now officially known as RL52 with tags L52 (left) and L53 (right). At the same time, he was vaccinated against morbillivirus. His morphometrics (physical measurements) came in at 100 cm axillary girth and 115 cm standard length. He’s smaller than RL08, but he still he seems chubby, because he’s significantly shorter than L08, too. RL52 compares closely in weaning size with RK42, a yearling who was recently re-sighted looking nice and healthy.

RK52 weaned her pup after 36 days of nursing. This is shorter than the average of 42 over the past few years–common among first-time moms–but longer than 32 days, the shortest number of nursing days known on Kauai.

Volunteers report that post-weaning, RL52 has been swimming for hours at a time, while nosing around the nooks and crannies of rocks and tossing in the air “findings” from the ocean floor, sleeping, and basically being a normal “weaner.”

Here are some photos of RL08 the day before he was tagged.

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PC: J. Honnert

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PC: J. Honnert

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PC: J. Honnert

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PC: J. Honnert

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PC: J. Honnert

At the other end of the main Hawaiian Islands, the team at Ke Kai Ola provided an update on RH38 in a press release, as follows:

Veterinarians diagnose infection due to trauma in complex case of RH38, an endangered Hawaiian monk seal in rehabilitation at The Marine Mammal Center’s hospital for monk seals 

(Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i – May 16, 2019) – Experts at The Marine Mammal Center report positive developments in the perplexing case of Hawaiian monk seal RH38. A CT scan performed in late- April showed muscle inflammation and infection in RH38’s back flippers, which spread to her bloodstream and caused a wide range of other problems. Based on the location and extent of the muscle damage, the Center’s veterinarians suspect trauma as the initial cause of the injury, though the source is unknown. 

“Wild animals mask pain and injury, so internal injuries can be well hidden, unlike more obvious external wounds,” says Dr. Claire Simeone, The Marine Mammal Center’s Hospital Director at Ke Kai Ola. “We’re elated to discover the diagnosis for this complex case, as each individual is critical to restoring this endangered population.” 

RH38 is stable, but remains in critical condition at Ke Kai Ola, The Marine Mammal Center’s hospital and visitor center in Kailua-Kona that is dedicated to the endangered marine mammal. The Center’s veterinary experts are currently treating her with antibiotics, pain medications and laser therapy, and are optimistic that she will continue to improve. 

The likely trauma that caused her injury may have been natural or human-induced, whether accidental or intentional. Natural causes of trauma include interactions with predators or other seals, and a variety of hazards such as debris in heavy surf and eroding rocks along shorelines where seals haul-out to rest. Accidental sources of trauma can include a boat strike or vehicle injury. While rare, there have been confirmed cases of intentional trauma inflicted on seals by people. 

“We always ask residents and visitors state-wide to be aware of seals that are or might be hauled out on beaches, for the safety of people and seals,” says Dr. Claire Simeone, The Marine Mammal Center’s Hospital Director at Ke Kai Ola. “We encourage beachgoers to share space with marine wildlife and report any interactions, whether accidental or intentional, so that responders can quickly assess the affected animal.” 

RH38 was molting at the time of her rescue, a natural annual process in which monk seals shed their hair and skin. Veterinarians suspect that some aspect of immunosuppression related to her molt may have played a role in her inability to deal with the infection caused by the trauma. 

As a result of her sepsis, RH38 had infections in a variety of organs. She has been successfully treated for pneumonia and corneal damage, both of which have resolved. She also developed a skin infection, kidney infection, resulting kidney stones and a liver infection, all of which are continuing to receive treatment and monitoring. 

The Kaua‘i Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui monitored RH38 over the past year and routinely observed her in good body condition. In March, she began to rapidly lose body condition. She was rescued from Kaua‘i on March 12, 2019, and transported via U.S. Coast Guard flight to Ke Kai Ola. During her initial critical care period, RH38 was tested for dozens of diseases, toxins and parasites. 

In late April, the Center’s staff and volunteers, along with a team from NOAA, transported RH38 to North Hawai‘i Community Hospital on Hawai‘i Island for a CT scan. The Center’s veterinary experts anesthetized her, and a scan was done on her entire body in order to more closely investigate the different organ systems that were showing signs of damage and pinpoint the source. This is the first CT scan ever performed on a wild Hawaiian monk seal. 

This is RH38’s second time in rehabilitation at The Marine Mammal Center. She was originally admitted to Ke Kai Ola in August of 2017 for malnutrition and a heavy parasite load. She more than doubled in body weight during her three-month rehabilitation and was successfully released back to Kaua‘i. Her current condition is not thought to be related to her original admit in 2017. 

The Marine Mammal Center’s work in Hawai‘i is dedicated to the conservation of Hawaiian monk seals. The Center is a member of the Pacific Islands Region Marine Mammal Response Network and is responsible for monitoring the seals that haul out on Hawai‘i Island. The Center’s marine science program, Nā Kōkua o ke Kai, serves students in grades 6 through 8 and their teachers on Hawai’i Island. Through community engagement, education, stranding response and animal care, their dedicated staff and volunteers are working to save a species. 

The Marine Mammal Center has rehabilitated 27 monk seals since opening Ke Kai Ola in 2014.The Center is proud to partner with NOAA to support conservation efforts for the Hawaiian monk seal. NOAA researchers estimate the current monk seal population to be about 1,400 animals, and about 30 percent of those monk seals are alive today directly due to conservation efforts led by NOAA and its partners. 

Monthly Update:

The Kauai team logged 348 seal sightings in April. This included 35 individually identified seals.

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

New:

  • New pup born to RK52. This is her first successful pup. In 2018, she pupped for the first time, however the pup was stillborn. This pup is male and thriving so far. Of note, RK52 was born to RH58 in 2011. The other pup born this year was to RB00, also offspring of RH58.

Updates:

  • Subadult female RH38 was captured and sent to KKO for care.
  • Adult female RB00 pupped at her natal beach; however she had previously pupped on Maui and Lanai, not Kauai. The pup is male and thriving. He weaned after 54 days of nursing and tagged as RL08 in April.
  • Displacements: No seals were displaced from the Poipu keiki pool. However, adult female RK90 began hauling out at Glass Beach and spending the nights. She was in pre-molt, and then molt condition during this time. Glass Beach is an unsafe location at night due to trucks driving on the beach. Therefore, RK90 was displaced (with approval from NOAA by trained staff) off the beach at sunset five times (3 times in April), twice along with adult male RK05. RK90 continues to return to Glass Beach several times per week, but has begun foraging at night again, therefore displacement has not been necessary. Close monitoring of this beach continues.
  • Bleach markings: 1 was applied this month.
  • Molting: 1 seal molted this month (RK90 at Glass Beach).

Research/Support of PIFSC:

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