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Seven Lucky Young Hawaiian Monk Seals Return to the Wild

After eight months of rehabilitation at Ke Kai Ola, our Hawaiian monk seal hospital, seven young seals are strong enough to return to their ocean home.


May 4, 2016

Hawaiian monk seal Kilo at Ke Kai Ola.
© Julie Steelman, The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit 18786


It’s been just a week since Hawaiian monk seal Kilo’s release back to the wild, and she’s already been spotted twice by researchers on nearby beaches. Both times she was spotted playing in the shallow waters near shore with sea cucumber guts on her face, indicating that she had been exploring the area closely enough to scare the small invertebrates into expelling their insides in defense.

While this is typical behavior for a young Hawaiian monk seal, it’s cause for celebration in Kilo’s case. Just eight months ago, she was near death—orphaned and starving on the privately owned island on Ni’ihau, southwest of Kauai, until she was rescued and brought to Ke Kai Ola for rehabilitation—our first patient from the Main Hawaiian Islands.

Kilo is the smallest pup admitted to Ke Kai Ola since The Marine Mammal Center opened this facility in 2014 to care for critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals. When Kilo arrived September 8, she weighed just 37 pounds, which is close to birth weight for a Hawaiian monk seal and just a quarter of what she should have weighed at her estimated age of 3 to 5 weeks old.

Hawaiian monk seals Kilo and Ama`ama at Ke Kai Ola.
© Julie Steelman, The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit 18786


Once in our care, it took Kilo several months to transition from being fed a mashed-up fish formula to being able to eat fish on her own. But after spending seven months at Ke Kai Ola, Kilo gained more than 100 pounds and was able to show our animal care experts that she was strong and feisty enough to compete for her own meals in the wild.

Lucky Seven
Kilo is just one of seven female Hawaiian monk seals released last month after receiving special care at Ke Kai Ola. Most of these seals were pups when they arrived at Ke Kai Ola in late September. And all of them had diagnoses similar to Kilo’s—they were emaciated, dehydrated and unlikely to survive without our help.

The six seals that joined Kilo at Ke Kai Ola also have one other thing in common—they were all rescued by NOAA researchers in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a 1,200-mile archipelago of small islands and atolls that is home to about 900 of the 1,100 monk seals surviving today. And that is also where they returned to the wild last week, after a multi-day journey by boat.

Hawaiian monk seals Mo`o and Mahina at Ke Kai Ola.
© Julie Steelman, The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit 18786


After rehabilitating our Hawaiian monk seal patients at Ke Kai Ola, the Center’s veterinary experts work closely with NOAA researchers to ensure that these seals return to a home in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where they can thrive. Each seal is fitted with a satellite tag before release so that we can continue to track their progress for several months.

In many cases, our seal patients are released on the same beaches where they were found—and their reactions once they arrive are a great reward for all of the hard work that goes into saving these critically endangered animals.

In Kilo’s case, she “bolted out onto the sand, then rolled around and pushed her face and nose into the sand, all while vocalizing quite a bit,” said Dr. Michelle Barbieri, a NOAA veterinarian who works closely with the Center’s veterinary team on care for the Hawaiian monk seals.

“Mo`o was particularly reluctant to move into a crate for transfer onto a smaller boat that could travel to shore,” Dr. Barbieri said. “But once she was on the boat, Mo`o kept looking out the side at the ocean beyond—I can only imagine how wonderful it must feel for these seals to sleep on sand again!”

Hawaiian monk seals Puka, Ama`ama, and Neva at Ke Kai Ola.
© Julie Steelman, The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit 18786


These Lucky Seven Seals Are Home Again

  • Kilo, a pup named by the Robinson family that owns the island of Ni’ihau where she was rescued
  • Ama`ama, a pup named for the island at French Frigate Shoals where she was born
  • Puka, a pup whose Hawaiian name means “hole” because of a scar on her neck
  • Neva, a pup named for Neva Shoals on Lisianski Island, where she was rescued
  • `Ena`ena, a pup named for a small, silver plant native to Kure Atoll, where she was rescued
  • Mahina, a pup whose Hawaiian name means “silver” because she was rescued during a “super moon”
  • Mo`o, a one-year-old whose Hawaiian name means “dragon/shape-shifter”

Open for Business
While the NOAA researchers are out in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands releasing the most recent Ke Kai Ola patients, they are also on the lookout for other monk seals in poor condition that might need our help. Any new animals they rescue will be brought back to Ke Kai Ola for several months of care.

But even though there are no patients at Ke Kai Ola right now doesn’t mean our team in Hawaii isn’t busy!

Our stranding response experts based in West Hawaii, near Kona, continue to monitor Hawaiian monk seal haul out activity there and manage rescue efforts for any sick and injured seals reported to our 24-hour hotline (808-987-0765). They also train local volunteers to be able to assess and rescue marine mammals in distress.

And because we want to keep our disturbances at a minimum while we have critical patients in-house, our life support experts who keep the facility running save all of their major projects for times when there are no patients. They’re in Hawaii right now resurfacing the seal pens, adjusting life support systems to improve water quality and doing general equipment maintenance to ensure that Ke Kai Ola is ready for any new patients.

Hawaiian monk seal Puka at feeding time.
© Julie Steelman, The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit 18786



The Center’s education and outreach efforts at Ke Kai Ola continue as well. Just in the last few weeks, Ke Kai Ola Operations Manager Deb Wickham and her team hosted marine biology students from Duke University in North Carolina as well as schoolchildren from Kuleana Education, located in Kona.

We’ve also recently installed new interpretative signage at Ke Kai Ola to educate visitors about the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals and the need for their conservation as well as what people can do to help them.

The Marine Mammal Center has already made a big difference for this critically endangered species—in the two years since opening our Ke Kai Ola hospital, we’ve rehabilitated more than one percent of the entire population. And just this week, one of our previous patients, a male seal named Hermes, was resighted looking healthy on a beach at Pearl and Hermes Reef near where he was released eight months ago.

But we can’t save this species on our own. Our efforts are made possible through our work with NOAA, our partnerships with community-based organizations like the Kohala Center and caring people like you.


You Can Be a Hawaiian Monk Seal Hero


Thanks to our generous donors, Hawaiian monk seal pups like Kilo are able to get a second chance at life in the wild. You can make a real difference for this critically endangered species and all of the marine mammals in our care by making a gift today.


 


 

Related:

Read more about Working With Endangered Species.

Learn about Hawaiian monk seals!

Find out about the Current and Released Patients at Ke Kai Ola.

 

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