Yesterday morning there was a knock on our stateroom door. Jessie Lopez (Chief Scientist) and Charles Littnan (Lead of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program) were inviting me to join the crew going to Nihoa that day. A pretty spectacular birthday present. It did mean that I was switching places with my roommate, Stacie Robinson, so I also owe her a big thanks- especially because she also lent me her camera for the day.
I had to quickly eat breakfast, pack a lunch and change into quarantined clothing for the day. After the small-boat meeting on the fantail, I packed Stacie’s camera plus some sunscreen and water into a dry bag and hustled down to the grated deck to grab a life jacket and hard hat. I was the last one to board the MetalShark, already nestled against the 02 deck, ready to be lowered into the water.
The landing on Nihoa can be tricky. The skilled crew of the Hi’ialakai piloted the inflatable Avon up to a rocky ledge, timing the approach with the wave surge and then instructed us on when we could step over onto the rocks. Only a couple of people can get out of the boat at a time because of the timing of the surge. Both our landing and departure went smoothly.
Shortly after we arrived it started to rain. We stashed our life jackets near the ledge and had begun walking towards the beach. There is one principal area where monk seals haul out, a beach that is short walk from the rocky ledge. We waited out the first squall in a some carved-out area in the rock (almost earning the name of ‘cave’ but not quite). After it let up we continued along the edge, picky our way across the lava rock, up and down and over. I was thankful both for the hiking boots I had on, and the rugged nature of the rock which meant it wasn’t slippery in the rain.
The permission to land on Nihoa and to approach the seals is granted by two separate permits: NMFS Permit # 16632 covers the monk seal work and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument Manager’s Permit allows us to work on Nihoa. Our group consisted of Jessie Lopez, Mark Sullivan, Charles Littnan, Justin Rivera (from the Monument office). Meg Duhr-Schultz and Laurie Harvey also came on island to do remove an invasive species of plant (sandbur). The monk seal crew’s mission was to survey the seals on island, bleach mark any adults without pups, tag any possible and check the remote camera systems put in place last year. There are two cameras placed up on the cliff on opposite sides of the beach. They’re set up to take photos every 15 minutes during daylight hours. Since we don’t ever have a constant presence at Nihoa these cameras will help document how many seals use this beach.
As the weather cleared Jessie and Mark began to bleach-mark seals that were far enough away from the moms and pups so as not to disturb them. I sat in my spot and took way too many photos. There was one mom and pup pair fairly close by. This pup looked like it was less than a week old. I refer to it as “WrinklePup”. Newborn pups have extra folds of skin that they seem to grow into fairly quickly, but this one looked a bit like a cross between an inch-worm and a furry tadpole. With flippers.
Then the sun came out.
The team took the opportunity to tag two seals. In addition to being a permitted activity, tagging seals is a procedure that gets evaluated by the NMFS Southwest Pacific Islands Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (SWPI IACUC). Mandated by the Animal Welfare Act, all research protocols involving mammals and turtles get evaluated by an IACUC to ensure that the protocols being used are the most humane possible, and that the overall purpose is worth the impact to the animal.