In Search of Seals on Kauai

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In Search of Seals on Kauai

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Feb 09, 2010

Behind me on a bluff, four Laysan albatross chicks have recently emerged from their calcium enclosures. The oldest—the one whose picture I posted yesterday—sits on its nest, alone now. Apparently, its parent finally grew hungry enough to head out to sea to fish. Up to four more chicks will soon pip and join the air breathing world. I can hear a group of juveniles mooing and clacking in a mating dance that reminds me of my college days at the University of Missouri.

After a mile-long hike and trek along a stretch of coastline on Kauai’s north shore, I am sitting under a heliotrope tree on the beach writing this. I can’t help but pull out my camera with the super-telephoto lens and snap a few pictures of the adult Laysan albatrosses skimming the ocean’s surf, but I didn’t pack my camera to take pictures of birds, as cute as they are.

I am here on Larsen’s Beach in search of the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, one of only two native mammals in Hawaii. (The other, if you’re interested, is a bat. Yes, a bat.) We estimate 30-some seals make Kauai their home. Another 80 or 90 stretch along the rest of the main Hawaiian Islands, but the vast majority of the species—90%--live in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. As you know from reading my blog, the Hawaiian monk seal is all but headed for extinction.

Only one in five Hawaiian monk seal pups survives to adulthood in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and no one seems to know exactly why.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a young boy I met on Maha’ulepu Beach while monitoring a six-day-old monk seal. He ooh’ed and aah’ed appropriately over the male pup, so that I shared everything I knew about seals with him. When he turned to leave, he stopped and called to me, “This is the best day ever.”

A mere 18 hours later, the boy and his family showed up at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge where I volunteer on Fridays. This time, his sister spoke up. She’d photographed another Hawaiian monk seal along Kauai’s east side. She flipped through her camera’s images on her LCD and tilted her camera up, showing me a picture of the seal. “Her name is Kaikoa,” she said. Kaikoa, a.k.a “Sunrise Seal.” I spent every morning for three months with Kaikoa when she was born last spring.

After encounters like these, I usually say to myself, “Maybe they’ll grow up to be a marine biologist and save the Hawaiian monk seal.”

Yesterday, my friend Dianne emailed to say that after a visit to the Monterey Aquarium, her young daughter Erin wants to grow up to be a marine biologist. Maybe Erin will save the seals.

In all reality, the seals probably don’t have that long.

When I arrived at the beach this morning shortly after sunrise, two men stood at the trailhead getting a healthy dose of the sea before heading—late—to work. “There are whales,” one said. He was referring to the Humpback whales who winter in Hawaii.

The sky threatened rain. Heavy clouds blanketed the horizon. I noticed the weekend’s swell had subsided and much of the reef was exposed—low tide.

I passed a woman practicing yoga on the beach. I picked up one plastic and two glass bottles. I stopped to take a picture of a rooster and, then, a rainbow arcing into the sea. I noticed two sets of turtle tracks. But no seals.

And, now, I sit here taking pictures of Laysan albatrosses and hoping a Hawaiian monk seal will come bobbing through the surf and haul out on the beach in front of me. Maybe H40, a healthy male and frequent visitor to Larsen’s Beach or K02, his sparring partner.

A team of five scientists from Oahu are on Kauai this week to tag as many seals as possible with devices that will cellularly transmit data on the seals’ foraging habits—information like how deep they dive, how frequently they dive, how far off shore they forage and how many hours a day they spend foraging for food. All in an effort to save the species.

To do my part, last week, I did something I’d never done before. I testified in front of the Senate—in support of SB2441. The bill proposes increasing the penalty for intentionally or knowingly harming or killing a Hawaiian Monk Seal or other endangered species in Hawaii from a misdemeanor to a Class C felony.

With 334 endangered species, Hawaii ranks as the “Endangered Species Capital of the World.” According to the Bishop Museum, there are more endangered species per square mile in Hawaii than any other place on the planet.

I believe it’s our endangered species that make Hawaii unique. The Hawaiian monk seal. Hawaiian green sea turtle. Hawaiian crow. Duck. Hawk. Hoary Bat. Goose. Silversword, sandalwood, Oahu tree snail and Clay’s hibiscus. Species found here and no where else on earth.

As I write, I feel the warmth of the sun on my back and slip on my sunglasses. It’s time to make my return trek down the beach.  

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