Two Hawaiian monk seals that were rehabilitated at a new facility in Kailua-Kona were returned to the wild in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (the Northwest Hawaiian Islands) last month.
The seals, whose species is considered to be critically endangered, were nursed back to health at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital in Kailua-Kona. According to a press release from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, “The seals were rescued last year in an emaciated state, one on Kure Atoll and another on Laysan Island, during NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s field camp season.”
It’s the facility’s second successful release: in August of 2104, it returned four monk seals to the wild.
“The successful rehabilitation and release of these young seals demonstrates the collaboration and innovation that will be necessary to save Hawaiian monk seals from extinction,” said Dr. Rachel Sprague, NOAA Fisheries’ Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Coordinator.
The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette brought the two emaciated juvenile females, named Pua ‘Ena O Ke Kai (“Fiery Child of the Sea”) and Meleana (“Continuous Song”), or Pua and Mele for short,to the Ke Kai Ola hospital in Kona in August of 2014, after a 21-day research mission that also successfully returned the hospital’s first four seal patients to French Frigate Shoals and Laysan Island and retrieved NOAA scientists who been studying the critically endangered monk seal population. Those scientists brought good news: The scientists counted 121 monk seal pups born in 2014, compared to 103 pups in 2013 and 111 pups in 2012. Overall, according to the NOAA researchers, the survival rate of the pups appears to be improving as well. There are currently only about 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals left in the wild, about 900 of whom call the Northwest Hawaiian Islands home. The survival rate for newborn seals varies widely from atoll to atoll, but overall is only about one in five.
The Marine Mammal Center has been rehabilitating seals and sea lions in California for about 40 years, but it only established its Kona facility in 2014.
According to the Center’s Web site, Pua and Mele had probably been weaned prematurely and would have stood little chance of survival if they had been left in the wild; Mele hadn’t yet learned to eat and had to be tube-fed a slurry of ground fish when she first arrived. Ke Kai Ola staff and volunteers nursed the young seals back to a healthy weight and taught them to catch fish on their own.
Pua and Mele were released at Kure Atoll because of a relatively good survival rate there, and because DLNR staff there could monitor their progress. The two young spared a long sea voyage home thanks to an inter-agency effort. According to the DLNR press release, “A U.S. Coast Guard HC-130 aircraft crew from Air Station Barbers Point on O?ahu picked up the seals in Kona and flew them to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge on March 18. On the evening of March 20, the seals were loaded onto the offshore supply ship Kahana and departed for Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary, located at the northernmost point in the Hawaiian archipelago, about 1,350 miles northwest of Honolulu. From the pickup in Kona until their release, the seals were monitored around the clock. Scientists from NOAA Fisheries and The Marine Mammal Center cared for the seals during transport and at Midway Atoll. After arrival at Kure Atoll on March 21, they were watched over by biologists from NOAA Fisheries and Hawai?i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) until their release on the 25th.”