Hawaiian Monk Seal Crittercam: Trouble in Paradise

By Charles Littnan, Lead Scientist of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, NOAA Fisheries

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the oldest species of seal on the planet, having resided in the tropical waters of the Hawaiian archipelago for millions of years.  But their tenure in paradise is perilously close to its end.  In the last 75 years the monk seal population has declined dramatically and only about 1,100 seals remain in the wild.

Charles Littnan is enlisting the help of National Geographic’s Crittercam team to get a closer look at the daily lives of these seals in order to learn how to better protect them.

Molokai’s western coastline and the location of the Hawaiian Islands Crittercam Project. Map by Google/GeoEye.

After months of planning and preparation the main Hawaiian Islands Crittercam Project (HŌʻIKE Ā MAKA) has finally started.  Our team from NOAA (Charles, Angie, Mark and Bob), Duke University (Kenady) and National Geographic (Greg and Kyler) arrived on Molokai early Thursday morning and spent most of the day getting gear prepared as we waited for the temperature outside to cool.

At 2 p.m. the team set out onthe hike from Dixie Maru parking lot to beaches beyond Molokai’s La’au Point.  The 9 mile round trip can be a very hot and strenuous hike for researchers carrying heavy packs in a place that looks and feels like the wilds of Africa.  A squall just before we set off was great for cooling down seals before we catch them, but creates treacherous and slippery footing as the red clay dirt turns to mud.  But despite the humidity, heat and mud, our spirits were high as we headed down Molokai’s west coast.

We slowly made our way down the old dirt road that runs parallel to the beach.  Weaving our way through kiawe trees (and their thorns) we checked the numerous sandy beaches along the way, hoping to see a monk seal.  We didn’t have to wait long.

Only a little over a mile into our hike we came across two seals that were potential candidates for carrying our first Crittercam.  The first was an enormous adult female know as RY30.  She is one of our more important mothers, having given birth to 9 pups in the main Hawaiian Islands.  Despite her phenomenal condition and recently molted coat (great for attaching instruments to) we did not instrument her.  We couldn’t be certain she was not pregnant and did not want to risk injuring mother or pup.

Hawaiian monk seal RM38 gets outfitted with a Crittercam. Photo courtesy of Charles Littnan.

So that left us choice #2, RM38.  RM38 is an 11-year old male seal that is seen regularly on the west coast of Molokai.  Most recently he has been observed swimming up and down the coast interacting with every seal he can.  Volunteers in the area, while still appreciating RM38, do think he is a bit of nuisance to his fellow seals.  After assessing the seal’s condition and fur, and deciding that all other factors (temperature, location etc.) were good, we decided to go ahead with the capture.

Everything went perfectly with the capture, restraint and instrumentation.  After a 48 minute procedure RM38 galumphed into the water and floated a 30 feet off the beach for several minutes before swimming off into the setting sun.

The technology being carried by RM38 is not the only important part of this work.  While he was sedated we collected blood samples, swabs from various locations, and blubber samples.  All of these will be analyzed to examine different aspects of the health and ecology of monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands.  As the sun set during our trek back to our hotel we wondered what RM38’s camera will show us about his feeding and underwater behavior.  The anticipation of recovering the Crittercam is growing.

We couldn’t have hoped for a better start to our trip.  Here is wishing Day #2 is just as good.

For more information on this project please visit:
http://monksealfoundation.org/Research.aspx

More from the Hawaiian Islands Crittercam Project

How “Real Reality Television” Might Save the Monk Seal

Changing Planet

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