I am at a beautiful Kauai beach again--in search of critically-endangered Hawaiian monk seals again. (Maybe I should re-name this blog, "Seal Spotter.")
After a morning of showers, the trade winds have blown away the dark clouds and the skies are sunny. A late-season swell is creating series of waves that chase the crabs up the beach and into their burrows. Off-shore, Laysan albatrosses surf the beautiful waves.
I am looking for the Hawaiian monk seal known as 028. Remember her? I helped tag her with a cell phone instrument last month. Unfortunately, she lost it a few days later but still sports the pad to which it obviously wasn't glued all that well. But that's not why I am looking for her today.
Two weeks ago, 028 was reported with a fishing hook stuck in the corner of her mouth. Four feet or more of fishing line trailed her, wrapping around her body. People said she tried to haul out at a south shore beach here on Kauai, but the line trapped under her body as she galumphed up the beach kept tugging the hook in the corner of her mouth. After a few attempts, she retreated back to the ocean.
028 is a young, four-year-old sub-adult female Hawaiian monk seal, just entering sexual maturity. We hope she will soon contribute to the Hawaiian monk seal population, declining at 4% per year.
This past Sunday afternoon, I received a phone call. Someone had spotted 028 on a remote north shore beach. When I got there, 028 had a companion. K02 is an up-and-coming dominant male, and he didn't let 028 out of his sight. As I watched, 028 galumphed higher up on the beach. K02 followed. When, she moved up even higher, so did K02. They rested a mere three feet from each other. For that reason--and because it was too late in the day for the hook retraction team to fly over from Oahu--it was decided to wait until the morning to remove the hook.
Hawaiian monk seals are nocturnal. They like to forage at night, as far as a mile off-shore. They dive on average 300 to 500 feet, repeatedly, for food--fish, lobster, squid and eel--and can stay off-shore for days on end.
Apparently, 028 knows this, because come Monday morning, she was gone--K02, too. So, we missed our chance to remove that pesky fishing hook, and now a bunch of us volunteers are scouring Kauai's beaches for her. With the swell pounding the north shore, she may have headed back to the south shore by now.
I traipse from one end of Larsen's Beach to the other. I peer around rocky points and into sandy coves. I find another male known as K05, but I do not find 028 today.
Fish hooks and fishing line are a common threat to Hawaii's marine animals--that includes seabirds, too.
Three weeks ago, during one of my Friday afternoon volunteer stints at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, I stood by the historic Kilauea Point Lighthouse and saw a majestic Laysan albatross glide overhead. A three-foot streamer trailed behind it, glistening in the sun.
After a little effort, Park ranger Christa captured the bird--Hawaii's seabirds are notoriously fearless, because, apparently, they did not evolve in a place with land predators, so they do not exhibit the expected "flight or fight" behavior found in so many other animals. That makes them sitting ducks (couldn't resist the metaphor) for wildlife biologists and, unfortunately, dogs and cats, too. Still, the albatross did leave a few welts and scratches on Christa's arm.
While Christa held the albatross, I tried to remove the hook that was lodged in the meat of the bird's wing. Ouch. After a few attempts and some help from a couple other rangers, we finally squished the barb of the hook flat, so I could re-thread the hook from the bird. When Christa released the albatross, it took to the air--its place of refuge--and flapped its long, glorious wings freely.
Hopefully, soon, 028 will be swimming through the seas freely, too. Although K02 will probably be right behind her, and that's O.K. with me.
Now, I'm off to Moloaa Beach to, hopefully, do some seal spotting there.