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Four Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals Released after Rehabilitation at Ke Kai Ola

The return of four endangered female seals back to their ocean home marks a significant win for their population of only about 1,400 individuals.


Updated September 10, 2020

Four Hawaiian monk seals were released back to the wild on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge after rehabilitating at Ke Kai Ola, our hospital and visitor center in Kailua-Kona dedicated to saving this endangered species.

You may remember their story from last summer. It was these four monk seals that researchers determined had a less than one percent chance of survival if they remained in the wild.

Two of the seals, Hilina‘i and Leimana, both weaned too early from their mothers and their small size would have made winter survival a challenge. The other two seals, Maka Kilo and Ka‘ena, were a little older but still underweight at their time of rescue.

Skinny and malnourished, the pups were rescued and safely transported from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to our hospital, Ke Kai Ola, for long-term care.

HMS DL32 Hilina’i pre-rescue
Hawaiian monk seal Hilina‘i rests on Pearl and Hermes Reef in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands before rescue. Photo © NOAA / NOAA permit #18786-03

During their more than 10 months in rehabilitation, the once-underweight monk seal pups grew into seals capable of thriving in the wild. They regained their strength, mastered the art of catching fish on their own and put on a healthy amount of weight—each seal gaining between 110 to 175 pounds, some more than tripling in overall weight!

The opportunity to rehabilitate these four Hawaiian monk seals not only gives them a second chance at life, but also gives researchers the chance to learn more about this species. Before release, three of the four seals were fitted with temporary satellite tags that will allow scientists to monitor them after their return to the remote atoll.

Data like this, paired with post-release visual observations and information gained during rehabilitation, is crucial when finding solutions to save this endangered species.

Young seals like Hilina‘i, Leimana, Maka Kilo and Ka‘ena are the most vulnerable animals in the population, with relatively few surviving to adulthood. Pups and juvenile seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands often fall victim to threats like entanglements in ocean trash, changes in the food chain and predation.

HMS December 2019
These Hawaiian monk seals had a less than one percent chance of survival if they were left in the wild. Their release gives hope for the recovery of this endangered species. Photo by Elena Graham / NOAA permit #18786-03

“To return four female Hawaiian monk seals back to their ocean home is an incredible success story and a significant boost to an endangered population where the survival of every individual is critical,” says Dr. Cara Field, our Medical Director, who was aboard NOAA’s research ship that brought these seals back to the Main Hawaiian Islands last summer.

As these four seals mature and have pups of their own in the wild, monk seal experts feel hopeful that this will improve the species’ chance of survival.

Going Home

With support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric and Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Coast Guard stepped in to return the four monk seals to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The safest and fastest mode of transport during the pandemic was to fly the animals directly to Midway Atoll, where they were released the same day.

“We are happy to welcome Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge's four newest residents," said Stephen Barclay, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge Manager. “The protected lands and waters will provide a safe home for these endangered monk seals, alongside the over one million seabirds and other wildlife that rely on the refuge.”

HMS Hilina’i and Maka Kilo
Three of the four Hawaiian monk seals were released with satellite tags, which you can see on Maka Kilo (right), in order for researchers to see their movements post-release. Photo by Michelle Barbieri © NOAA / NOAA permit #18786-03

Since 2014, we have rehabilitated and released 33 monk seals, most of which have been rescued from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by NOAA. As the only organization permitted by NOAA to treat and rehabilitate endangered Hawaiian monk seals, we are proud to partner with them to support conservation efforts for the Hawaiian monk seal.

“This success story highlights the importance of our ongoing partnerships to help save this species,” Dr. Field adds.

NOAA researchers estimate the current monk seal population to be about 1,400 animals—about 30 percent of those monk seals are alive directly due to conservation efforts led by NOAA and partners like us, and supported by compassionate people like you.

You Can Be a Hawaiian Monk Seal Hero

You can help send the next Hawaiian monk seal back to their ocean home. You can make a real difference for this endangered species when you support animal care, education and research with your gift today.

Hawaiʻi Public Radio: Checking in with recently released monk seals

The Marine Mammal Center’s Dr. Cara Field and Dr. Sophie Whoriskey are featured on Hawaiʻi Public Radio’s The Conversation with host Catherine Cruz. They dive into the recent release of four monk seals at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, Dr. Whoriskey’s new role as Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Veterinarian at Ke Kai Ola, the impact of toxoplasmosis and how patient enrichment for our seals and sea lions in California has translated to better rehabilitative care for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

Audio Credit: Hawaiʻi Public Radio

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