The C-130 rumbled down the far end of the Lihue runway, away from the chaos of passenger travel. Here there was no agricultural checkpoint, that extra travel requirement peculiar to Hawaii. There was no TSA security; no baggage claim; no harried travelers.
I stood behind a rusty, chain-link fence, watching a beast of plane approach, its four propellers whirling, a band of orange around its girth, a white star reversed out of a dark circle on its tail and a nose cone of black that made me think of Snoopy.
But not even the silly image of a cartoon dog could stop the tears that came to my eyes and the chicken skin that pimpled my arms.
Inside that lumbering aircraft was RK36. A Hawaiian monk seal
known to Kauai as “Kolohe.”
Hawaiian monk seals are the most endangered pinniped in North America. Only some 1,100 forage the waters off Hawaii and haul out on the archipelago’s beaches to rest, molt and birth. A good 90% of the species live in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, far away from humans but not far enough away from threats created by humans. Here, ghost fishing nets and other marine debris entangle seals, sometimes leading to their death by drowning. In the main Hawaiian Islands, monk seals also run into trouble with marine fishery interactions—in particular gill nets and fish hooks.
When the plane finally came to a reverberating rest, and the pilot shut off its propeller engines, Kolohe was home. But not even an endangered monk seal is immune to flight delays. Engine trouble had pushed Kolohe’s arrival in Lihue back three hours. As a half-dozen Coasties hopped out of the plane, I wondered whether Kolohe had used the flight delay to his advantage, extending his first-class treatment provided by the U.S. Coast Guard with octopus-scented water spritzers, a sushi platter and, perhaps, a special monk seal massage.
That’s what “giddy with joy” will make a person do—fantasize. Dream up the unimaginable. The truth was Kolohe was inside a mesh transport carrier that was strapped down to the floor of a cavernous plane.
Airport Police unlocked the rusty, chain-link gate and let a group of us--volunteers with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui
enter. We did have to show picture ID, clip a special badge to our shirts and stick close to a police officer, but there were no lines at this end of the airport. We were here for our muscle. Not that a group of middle-aged and retired folk still walk through life flexing all that much muscle. But we didn’t know how attached the young people of the Coast Guard would be to Kolohe. Apparently, Kolohe spent his three-hour delay charming a few Coasties, and they were happy to do the heavy lifting.
Kolohe got his Hawaiian nickname when the little “rascal” repeatedly showed up at the keiki swimming pool along the shoreline at Poipu Beach Park
on Kauai’s south shore—right smack-dab in front of the lifeguard stand. A Hawaiian monk seal does not make a good swimming buddy for children—or adults. Monk seals tend to play rougher than we mere humans do. They can also hold their breath—and you—under water longer than we mere humans. Plus they do have some powerful jaws. But it makes sense that Kolohe would seek out others his size. He was a keiki at the time and possibly still remembered swimming with his mother off the shores of his natal beach.
Now, at 8 or 9, Kolohe is entering his prime and still creating a ruckus. This time, with a nearly four-inch fish hook.
Ulua, or Giant trevally, is an extremely popular shoreline game fish in Hawaii, and while the majority of shorecasters reel in 25-pounders, the trophy fish weighs 50, 75, even 100+ pounds.
It takes a large hook to catch a 100-pound, fighting, game fish. It also takes decent size bait—often live fish or squid—something that might make a nice snack for a seal.
A couple weeks ago, on Kauai’s south shore, a volunteer spotted a length of line coming out of Kolohe’s mouth. A team from NOAA flew in from Oahu to investigate. The goal is always to de-hook a seal right on the beach, if possible, and release it immediately. But Kolohe’s hook was not visible, and he was flown on a Coast Guard C130 to Oahu. X-rays revealed the hook was lodged in the back of his throat near his larynx and trachea. Kolohe was sedated and intubated with gas anesthesia. Thankfully, the vet didn’t have to cut Kolohe open and was able to go through the mouth and remove the hook. But there were complications. An infection had already set in and led to life-threatening pneumonia. Kolohe coughed and sneezed up significant amounts of blood. After a couple of touch-and-go days, Kolohe rebounded, and after a few more days of recuperation, he was returning to Kauai, a mere 14 pounds lighter, to be released in his home waters.
I heard him first, grumbling at his Coast Guard flight attendants—he hadn’t lost his ability to speak. And as I got closer, I smelled him.
Suddenly, a couple dozen people surrounded the plane. At this remote end of the airport, where un-watered grass went brown in the hot sun and gates and fences were left to rust, from the woodwork, military, maintenance workers and other airport personnel appeared. Out of no where. And they all toted cell phones, snapping pictures of the rare, endangered monk seal. It’s not every day that you see a marine mammal getting a lift from the Coast Guard and hanging out in the back of an airplane.
For that matter, it’s not every day you see a monk seal in the back of a truck riding down the highway. And, yet, as I followed close behind Kolohe, keeping an eye on his behavior in the transport carrier in the bed of the truck in front of mine, I didn’t see a single person—hitchhiker, bike rider, car driver—take notice of the monk seal getting a tour of Kauai during rush hour.
We made it to Salt Pond
on the west side of Kauai, and this time volunteers were needed to lift Kolohe. We settled his carrier on the sand, opened the gate, and the little rascal wasted not a second of time galumphing for the water. He made a couple laps of the keiki pool—we’d cleared the kids out first—and slipped through an opening in the reef for the open ocean.
Kolohe sported some serious electronics on his back when he returned home from the big city of Honolulu. Those devices will transmit data to the scientists in charge of recovering this species and let us know Kolohe’s whereabouts, including any keiki pools, over the next few months.
Some days in life are good. Really, really good. Some days make you cry because you are alive. Monday was one of those days.
In 2004, the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center
started encouraging shoreline fishers to convert to barbless circle hooks, and many are. Barbless circle hooks are easier for an animal--Hawaiian monk seal, turtle, even "the fish that got away" to de-hook itself and/or pass, potentially saving its life. In the first three years of the PIFSC project, over 35,000 barbless circle hooks have been distributed throughout Hawaii. The project is a good example of how protected species and humans can peacefully coexist. The organization also published a brochure, which can be downloaded here: Guidelines for Prevention, Safety and Reporting of Hawaiian Monk Seals and Fishing Interactions