A Lesson in Monk Seal Conservation and…How to “Dougie”?

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.

Lucky Contestant #2

Day 2: Friday morning we woke up still excited from our great success the day before and very hopeful about getting a second Crittercam out.  An added bonus for the day was a group of young students from Ho’omana Hou High School that were supposed to meet us near La’au to learn a bit about monk seals and the work we are doing.

We were on the trail by 615 AM and anxious to find seals.  Unlike the previous afternoon, the more northern (closer) beaches were barren of seals.  Undeterred we pushed on down the road covering the miles to La’au quickly.  (I would like to take a timeout here to thank Di and Jen who were gracious enough to volunteer to hike with us and look for seals!)

About 2 miles into the hike we came across our first seal.  I snuck stealthily down to try to identify the seal so we could determine whether it was a candidate for a Crittercam.  The seal had the silvery coat of a recently molted animal (good news) and easily readable flipper tags that identified is as RT22.

The flipper tags said it all…despite being in good condition with good fur, RT22 is only a 2-3 year old female and too small for instrumentation for now.  So we left her sleeping blissfully unaware on the beach and continued our search.

At this time we met up with the students from Ho’omana Hou and they joined us on our hike to find the seals.  Our journey didn’t last long.  The very next beach held RB02, a five-year old seal we had tracked the previous year.  We knew right away he was a good seal for a Crittercam but we also knew he could be a challenge.

The first time we captured RB02 he proved to be a handful and managed to give one of our more experienced seal catchers several solid hits to the head (don’t worry, Chad has a very thick skull).

The capture this time went much more smoothly and in 28 short minutes RB02 was fully instrumented and headed back to the ocean. We had two Crittercams deployed in less than 24 hours.  Success! But now would come the real work…relocating the seals to get our Crittercams back.

“Teach Me How to Dougie”

Now, here is a bit more info about the students that came down to work with us. Ho’omana Hou High School was founded by the Moloka’i Community Service Council in 2004.  It is a private school licensed by the state and teaches standard academics in the context of the island’s environment and culture.

This hands-on approach is often more effective with students who have difficulty in a 4-walls setting. This year, all of the students are Hawaiian and all have ancestral roots on Moloka’i.  It was a fantastic group of kids who relaxed pretty quickly and peppered us with great questions.

They also shared a lot of information with us including local legends (and ghost stories) and how to do the Dougie (if you don’t know look it up). Greg Marshall from National Geographic also got a lesson in how to do a proper shaka.  Apparently his overzealous hand wiggle was too “Californian”.

They showed him the right way, but given the giggles after numerous attempts I think it still needs some work.  We really appreciate the willingness of these kids and Pono, their chaperone, to hike out, spend time with us, and carry themselves like mature young scientists.  For more information about Ho’omana Hou High School visit: http://molokai.org/programs/education/hoomana-hou-alternative-school/index.html

Day 3: Day off!  The Crittercams need at least 48 hours to fill up so we spent the day catching up on email, shooting footage for Nat. Geo, and planning for the recapture effort.  Now the hard part…

More from the Hawaiian Islands Crittercam Project

How “Real Reality Television” Might Save the Monk Seal

Hawaiian Monk Seals Crittercam: Trouble in Paradise

Changing Planet

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