Odyssey of a Hawaiian Monk Seal and a Volunteer in Waikiki

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Odyssey of a Hawaiian Monk Seal and a Volunteer in Waikiki

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Oct 24, 2012

The sky above Diamond Head had just started to pink when I hit Kalakaua Avenue for my morning walk. I wasn't alone. Surfers bobbed on the waters off Waikiki Beach, which, I quickly noticed, rippled with a late-season south swell. Dogs had hit the streets, too. One particular chocolate Lab strained at its leash, its head cranked toward the ocean, yearning and excitement oozing from its whole body. On the beach, a group of Japanese soccer players ran drills. Another man was inventing a new form of stretching exercise.

When I set out, I knew my destination. Even though it wouldn't open for another three hours, I was headed for the Diamond Head end of Waikiki and the Waikiki Aquarium. I hoped I'd be able to squeeze my nose through a hole in the fence and see KP2.

KP2 is an endangered Hawaiian monk seal that was born on the North Shore of Kauai four years ago to a female that wasn't interested in mothering. A year earlier, she abandoned a pup. Things were no different in 2008 with KP2. She didn't nuzzle it. She didn't nurse it. She didn't respond to its calls. So, a team of NOAA scientists swooped in and scooped up the neonate--a male. That started a chain of unanticipated and unprecedented events--a series of firsts--that would take the pup to Oahu. Then, to Molokai. Then, to the Marine Mammal Physiology Lab at University of California Santa Cruz. At three-and-a-half years of age, KP2 returned home to Hawaii where he resides at the Waikiki Aquarium. (And in the ensuing years, KP2's mother would magically transform and birth, nuzzle, nurse and raise two Hawaiian monk seal pups to weaners.)

I dodged puddles on the sidewalk en route to Waikiki Aquarium. I stopped to pull out my iPhone and take pictures as the sun crested Diamond Head. I passed a man walking two standard Poodles sporting the classic lion cut. I dodged surfers balancing longboards on their heads. Runners whizzed by. Walkers sauntered down the sidewalk toting cardboard coffee cups. Walking along Waikiki Beach is one of my favorite things to do on Oahu. I am always entertained by the people and scenery.

When I heard the whir of motors and engines and fans, I knew I was close. These are the behind-the-scenes machinations that keep the fish and coral and invertebrates and two marine mammals alive at the aquarium. I also knew there was a chain-link fence that rain along the sidewalk, the boundary of the aquarium, which was the vantage point I hoped might offer a glimpse of KP2, and, indeed, I could just see a sliver of his pool. 

As I waited, a bubbles bloomed across the surface of the pool's water. Then, a shadow moved into view, followed not by KP2's head, as I was hoping, but by a basketball. The seal likes to shoot hoops, apparently. I waited some more. And some more, feeling like a peeping Tom or vandal of some sort. A movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. I never did see KP2--or Maka, the second, older seal at the Waikiki Aquarium--but I did see my friend Marylou picking up a piece of trash in the yard.

Marylou works at Waikiki Aquarium and last week had invited me to a presentation by the author of The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species. We met for lunch first and discussed the return of normal-length whiskers in KP2. The possibility of continuing Terrie's monk seal physiology research at the aquarium. And, of course, the engaging personality of a seal raised in human care that makes him an ambassador for the species.

After lunch, Terrie presented to a group of volunteers at the Waikiki Aquarium. She shared the story of KP2 journey from a beach on the North Shore of Kauai to Santa Cruz, California and on to the Waikiki Aquarium, what looks to be KP2's permanent home. She shared the results of her research on the metabolic rates of Hawaiian monk seals across a range of water temperatures and the caloric intake necessary for their individual survival. She was particularly interested in finding out whether this tropical seal could ever survive in temperate water. She wanted to know how well-built Hawaiian monk seals are for deep-water diving. All in an effort to save a speces that, she says, will go extinct within 50 years unless something changes. Current estimates number 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals in existance, which means, according to Terrie, that there are more panda bears in this world than Hawaiian monk seals.

This week, I am in Waikiki for the Sixth Pacific Islands Marine Mammal Responders Meeting. All the people who are anybody in the effort to save the endangered Hawaiian monk seal from extinction are here. The group fills a good-size banquet room. From the scientists who run lab tests on blubber samples to the field biologists who venture into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to collect data on Hawaiian monk seal pups--and sometimes cutting them free from giant nest balls of ghost netting and translocating the vulernable monk seal pups from low-survival areas where Galapagos sharks prey on them to much higher survival areas. From government agencies who investigate suspicious Hawaiian monk seal deaths to the veterinarians who perform necropsies. From education and outreach specialists who create brochures and signage to volunteers like myself who respond to reports of monk seals hauled out on Hawaii's beaches.

With no sighting of KP2, I circled the Waikiki Aquarium and headed for my meeting. By now, sunlight slipped through Diamond Head in rays, projecting the kind of light that makes the ocean look like mercury and casting the hotels framing Waikiki Beach in a warm glow. More surfers had appeared. More yoga and tai chi practitioners. More dog walkers. A man sitting on a bench working a crossword puzzle. I finished my walk with a stop by a bronze statue at the corner of Kalakaua and Kapahuli Avenues. Here, a Hawaiian monk seal and surfer share a wave. The plaque reads, "Based on a children's story by Fred Van Dyke honoring Hawaiian values of love and respect for ohana (family) and this ocean." 

I hope those values will exist for a long, long time. Not only for the sake of the Hawaiian monk seal species but our own, as well.


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