I’m (back) on a boat
It’s been four years since I’ve been to sea, five since I was out on a NOAA ship. We’re embarking on a 26-day journey to drop off 14 field campers for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP). They’ll camp on remote atolls until September, taking daily surveys/censuses of the seals, marking them with bleach (id numbers) so they can be identified at a distance, flipper tagging new pups, and intervening in a variety of beneficial ways to aid in monk seal survival (disentangling from fishing gear, lancing abscesses, re-uniting moms and pups who’ve been separated, intervening when there’s an aggressive male seal threatening a pup, etc.). Basically it’s the annual 3-month-long fairy godparent visit for the species. A recent calculation estimates that 30% of this endangered population is alive today due to the efforts of this program. (learn more about HMSRP here: http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/hawaiian_monk_seal/index.php or search for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program or HMSRP on facebook)
An added bonus for this trip is that, for the first time, we have the option of picking up young seals that are either emaciated or ill, and bringing them down to the newly opened monk seal hospital in Kona (part of the Marine Mammal Center). There they can be treated, hopefully recover from whatever ails them, and then catch a ride back up to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in September for the pick-up cruise.
A lot of what I’ve written above will sound incredibly interventionist to any wildlife biologist, and it is. The hairs might be standing on the back of your neck, or you’re wincing and your sphincter is tightening. We’re all trained to observe animals in their natural environment and not take any actions that would alter their behavior. But this species sits on the edge between recovery and extinction, and if these actions can keep the species viable in the wild, then they’re worth the carefully weighed impact on the animal, and the effort, time, money, anxiety and stress of the dedicated team that says ‘not on my watch’.
There are two principal NOAA Research Vessels (R/Vs) used by PIFSC (Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, where I work). The ship the monk seal program is used to sailing on, and the ship I’ve been on once before, is the NOAA R/V Oscar Elton Sette. This year, due to scheduling conflicts, we are heading up to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands aboard the NOAA R/V Hi’ialakai. I’ve never been on this ship, and but it’s a T-AGOS class ex-Navy ship with a very similar internal layout to the ship I knew and loved best, the McArthur II. So it feels familiar even though I’ve never been here before. But a ship’s personality is determined by her people, and I’m only beginning to meet the crew and officers. (so far so good)