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Posts Tagged ‘Hawaiian monk seal’

Sightings:

The Kauai team logged 336 seal sightings this month. This included 34 individually identified seals.

Jan:336
Dec: 270
Nov: 239
Oct: 225
Sep: 354

New Issues:

  • R376, adult female, hooked with small j-hook in lip. Hook came out without intervention several days later.
  • One new juvenile male, untagged and unknown, sighted on West Side.

Updates on previously reported issues:

  • R7AA, juvenile female, was observed with a moderate injury to right cheek, possibly a hook pull-out or moray eel bite. Antibiotics were given. Close monitoring continued, wound currently healing.
  • NG00, sub-adult male, was observed with a circle hook in lower right lip. Sighted on Niihau in January. Photos match pictures sent in by fisherman along Kaumakani in September of a hooked seal. Seal in good condition. Hook not life threatening. Will attempt to de-hook next time hauled out on sand.
  • Poipu Keiki Pool: 3 seals displaced from Keiki Pool.
  • Morbillivirus vaccinations: All vaccines on Kauai have expired. No further vaccinations will occur for the time being.
  • Bleach markings: 1 seal bleach marked this month.
  • Molting activity: no seals molted this month.

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Last fall, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program placed dive recording tags on two monk seals that make their home in Kauai waters. We briefly wrote about it here. During one recording period, the two seals (R1KT and R7AA) both made numerous dives deeper than 150 meters (492 feet). One bottomed out at 170 meters (557 feet) and the other at close to 200 meters (656 feet).

These are mammals diving to 500 feet on a single breath of air. But that’s not unusual for monk seals. In fact, the deepest known dive for a monk seal occurred in 2003 when scientists in a Pisces submersible descended to a depth of 543 meters (1,781 feet). They were studying deep sea corals, submarine canyons, and seamounts when a Hawaiian monk seal swam into their field of view. The on-board microphone captured their reaction. It went like this:

“Whoa.”

“What’s that?”

“That’s a monk seal.”

“Oh my god.”

“No way.”

“Look it. Right in front of us.”

“No way.”

“Oh my god.”

So, how do they do it? How do monk seals dive to depths of 1,781 feet?

There are numerous physiological responses involved; collectively the process that allows monk seals to dive deep is known as “mammalian diving reflex.” It involves the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Typically, before a dive, seals exhale completely. This allows their lungs to completely collapse and avoid gas transfer at depth that could cause nitrogen narcosis. Then, holding their breath, the heartbeat slows from about 125 beats per minute to as low as 10 beats per minute. This is known as bradycardia. A slowing heart rate reduces oxygen consumption. Too, blood is diverted from the limbs and all organs except the heart and brain. This is known as blood shift. It’s accomplished through a process known as peripheral vasoconstriction. Too, diving mammals have high blood volume. That is, elevated hemoglobin and myoglobin levels, which provides greater oxygen storage. The whole idea is to conserve oxygen consumption, so the seal can dive deeper and longer.

Simply, they can hold their breath, slow their heart rate, and direct blood to just the heart and brain. This also helps explain their torpedo-like shape and abbreviated pectoral fins.

Here’s a video of that astonishing 1,781-foot-diving monk seal.

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To the casual beachgoer in Hawaii, one Hawaiian monk seal can look just like the next. What appears to be a male monk seal could be a female, and a “mother and baby” pair may actually be juvenile and a newly-weaned pup tumbling in the shore break. Such mistakes are common in the calls to our hotline.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 4.47.31 PMBut when someone calls our hotline to report a seal on Kaua‘i that “has something around its neck,” the seal almost always turns out to be a familiar female known as RK30. If there’s one seal that represents the challenges a monk seal faces in her lifetime, it’s RK30. She is the “poster seal” of monk seal threats.

RK30 first made her presence known in a dramatic way, and she hasn’t stopped, hauling out on virtually every beach around Kaua‘i in the more than 18 years since we first spotted her, even pushing through throngs of people in the water and onshore to find a place to rest at busy sites along the South Shore and East Side.

It all started in 2005 when she was first identified by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and it was that “thing around her neck” that got everyone’s attention. It was suspected to be entanglement with a piece of thick line. This was in the early days of these kinds of responses in the Main Hawaiian Islands, and a team gathered and boated to a remote beach along Nā Pali Coast. But RK30 wanted nothing to do with their help. She was already a strong, powerful adult, and she quickly evaded our team.

Luckily, our vet at the time, Dr. Bob Braun, was able to get a good look at RK30 and positively confirm that she had been entangled, but—here’s the good news—that she’d already freed herself of the entanglement. It took a while for her to shake loose of the rope, as evidenced by the remaining, dramatic scar. It suggests the line had been around RK30’s neck for some time—long enough to leave a permanent indentation around her neck that, upon first glance, still looks like she’s entangled today. Luckily, RK30 slipped her noose before a deadly infection could set in and kill her.

Looking back, this was our first sign that RK30 is the extreme survivor she’s turned out to be, because the entanglement scar isn’t her only indication of a brush with death. In addition, she has boat propeller scars on her belly and a large scar on her left side from a possible encounter with a large shark. On top of all that, she has a constellation of 13 cookie-cutter shark bite scars on her body.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 4.47.19 PMRK30’s skill at evading death has helped her species in significant ways—primarily, by adding to the species. To our knowledge, RK30 has birthed at least nine pups. Unfortunately, not all her offspring have survived the way she has. One was lost as a very young pup when a late-season swell washed it out to sea. Another died as a juvenile after ingesting a fishing hook. Her oldest known living offspring is RW06, a female, regularly seen along Kaua‘i’s South Shore and nearing reproductive age.

RK30 was pregnant with another pup (RH38) in 2016 when she was harassed by a man while she was resting out at the ocean’s edge. The man—with a long list of other run-ins with the law—was eventually sentenced to four years in prison by Hawai‘i’s Environmental Court. This was the first conviction under the state’s felony endangered species harassment statue, legislation that was initiated by a few stalwart monk seal supporters and introduced by then-Senator, Gary Hooser in 2010 after a spate of intentional killings of monk seals. A few days after RK30’s encounter with the intoxicated man, she gave birth to a healthy RH38 at one of her regular pupping sites along Nā Pali Coast. And she gave birth to another pup in 2017.

During the more than 13 years we’ve tracked RK30 around Kaua‘i, she’s exhibited some unique behaviors. As tolerant as she generally appears to be around humans, she is no pushover. She’ll bark and lunge at those humans who agitate her. She’s also been witnessed logging just offshore in shallow, calm waters. Too, we’ve received frequent reports of her associating with Green sea turtles—pushing them around, flipping the in the air, gnawing at them. But no reports of her killing or eating one.

We have no doubt that monk seals will continue to surprise us in the future. We just hope it’s not RK30. She’s made enough headlines, although we’d be happy to see her pass on her genes to a half-dozen more or so pups in the remainder of her years.

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7AA front head viewEarlier this month, someone called the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Hui hotline to report a green seal hauled out on the east side. It was R7AA. The next day, the same seal was reported “very green” and with a “transmitter.” (You may recall R7AA was flipper-tagged in September and outfitted with a dive recorder. That was the “transmitter” on her back.) But this report also included “something hanging from the seal’s mouth.” Kindly, the caller sent photos. Shortly thereafter, the dispatcher with the Kauai Police Department also received a call and report of a hooked seal. More photos were submitted. While no hook was seen in any of the photos, our Kauai team immediately responded.

7AA side head viewWhat they found was, indeed, a very green seal sporting a transmitter. And no hook. But she did have gouges to both her upper and lower lips and a flap of skin hanging from the right side of her mouth and was given a antibiotic injection by way of a pole syringe.

7AA lifting headThat was last weekend. In the week since, R7AA has been sighted on three more occasions. The skin flap is gone. Her wound is healing. And she’s just started to molt around her flippers.

For now, she’s still–appropriately for the holiday–green.

This is a good example of the efforts of many people and agencies coming together to aid one in need, our endangered Hawaiian monk seals.

 

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In November, the Kauai team logged 239 seal sightings. This included 35 individually identified seals. Here’s a look at how the 239 number compares to other months.

November: 239
October: 225
September: 354
August: 236
July: 335

As a reminder, there are numerous reasons that can effect the number of reported seal sightings. Two big ones are the availability of our steadfast volunteers taking their daily beach walks, and the presence of moms with pups and the subsequent “pup sitting” we do. Of course, the seals themselves play a factor in this, too. Maybe there’s some seasonality in foraging that takes them to remote areas of the island where we don’t see them. That’s the thing with animals that spend the majority of their lives at sea–we don’t quite know.

Other November news to note:

  • Seal activity continues around Poipu Beach Park with seals swimming among swimmers, snorkelers and the water aerobics class and hauling out on the beach amidst beach-goers. Our advice continues to be for everyone involved to give the animal its space and never approach, touch, harass, disturb it. Remember: Monk seals are wild animals; let’s keep them that way.
  • One additional monk seal received its morbillivirus vaccination in November. This virus, similar to distemper in dogs, has not infected the monk seal species. But in a proactive effort to combat an outbreak, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Science Program started vaccinating seals last year. To learn more about the threat of morbillivirus, read this Smithsonian article.
  • Two seals “bleach-marked” this month–RG22 as V22 and R340 as V77. To learn more about using Clairol to help identify individuals seals, read this previous #MonkSealMonday report.
  • Four seals completed their molts in November, including: RH38, RG58, RK14, RH80. To learn more about molting in Hawaiian monk seals, read this previous #MonkSealMonday report.

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V76(Thomton)There are numerous ways to positively identify a monk seal, including: 1) Natural bleach marks; 2) Scars; 3) Plastic flipper tags; and 4) Applied bleach marks.

To the untrained eye, one monk seal may look just like another. And, sometimes, even those who have been trained and spent hours, days and weeks observing monk seals confuse one monk seal for another. That’s because not all seals are flipper-tagged and even those that are sometimes lose the plastic identification tags attached to their rear flippers due to breakage. Too, a monk seal’s wounds—say from cookie cutter sharks—heal quite quickly, so a once dependable identifying scar can fade. Even the temporary three-digit “bleach marks,” applied by a trained biologist with the aid of your standard, over-the-counter, hair dye (thanks Clairol!) disappears every year when the seal goes through its annual molt.

The ability to identify individual seals is important for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program to track seals throughout their lifetime to gain information about their movement patterns, survival, reproduction, health, and more.

On Kaua‘i, we regularly see 40 to 50 individual seals that we consider “resident” to the island. While some tend to favor Kaua‘i, we do know many move from island to island throughout the archipelago. Most recently, thanks to these unique ways to identify individual seals, two of those once seen around Kaua‘i have been spotted elsewhere.

R8HE was a juvenile when flipper-tagged here in 2014, but she’s been regularly sighted around O‘ahu and reported as far away as Hawai‘i Island. Earlier this year, she appeared pregnant but then wasn’t seen for a couple months. She popped back up looking very thin, making HMSRP suspect she’d pupped in a remote place somewhere. (This happens even in the Main Hawaiian Islands.)

Too, earlier this year, an adult female started hauling out on the rocks near Brennecke’s Beach in Poipu and was bleach-marked V76. Late last month, she was reported by divers off Hawai‘i Island.

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RH38 is back and looking fit!

After 84 days in rehab at Ke Kai Ola (also known as the “Monk Seal Hospital”) on Hawai‘i Island, the yearling monk seal gained nearly 100 pounds. That’s more than a pound a day.

Here’s a video of RH38 exiting her carrier upon her return to Kaua‘i.

And here she is entering the ocean.

When we think of threats to Hawaiian monk seals, we often think of entanglements with marine debris. We think of monk seals ingesting fishhooks. These are the more obvious threats. That is, the ones we can easily see. But there are other threats that require the aid of microscopes to see, and that’s exactly what RH38 was fighting.

Gastrointestinal parasites (tapeworms) are not uncommon in monk seals; however, RH38 was carrying such a heavy load, it had a negative effect on her health.

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This photo of RH38 was taken in July. (PC: J. Thomton)

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This photo of RH38 was taken in July. (PC: J. Thomton)

RH38 was born to RK30 in the spring of 2016 at a remote beach along Napali Coast. At weaning, she was reported to be one of the largest pups of the 2016 season across the state. However, in the ensuing months, as you can see from the photos above, she lost quite a bit of weight. At her release from Ke Kai Ola last week, she topped out at a healthy 185 pounds. What’s more, she’d been de-wormed. She’s now in the perfect condition to go through her first annual molt, which, by the looks of all the green algae growing on her, is likely to happen soon.

When monk seals molt, they do so all at one time, over the course of 10 days to two weeks, spending much of that time conserving energy on the beach.

Since RH38’s about to experience her first molt, she was not outfitted with a telemetry tag that would tell us her whereabouts, because it would simply fall off as soon as the patch of hair and skin holding it in place does.

Ke Kai Ola was recently recognized by NOAA with a “Species in the Spotlight Hero Award” during the “Year of the Monk Seal” for their conservation efforts in helping recover the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Since the hospital opened three years ago, Ke Kai Ola has rehabilitated and released 20 monk seals back into the wild. We are very grateful for their assistance in helping RH38 return to tip-top shape.

As well, we couldn’t move ailing monk seals quickly from Kaua‘i to Hawai‘i Island without the help of the U.S. Coast Guard who, once again, provided a lift for RH38. That’s two airplane flights for this one-and-a-half-year-old monk seal.

 

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