AIR STATION BARBERS POINT >> Tsunamis generated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan earlier this month swept up a one week-old Hawaiian monk seal pup and separated her from her mother at a remote atoll northwest of the main Hawaiian islands, but a state wildlife worker managed to reunite the pair shortly after.
The pup was crying for her mother after tsunamis hit Kure Atoll nearly 1,400 miles northwest of Honolulu on March 11, said the atoll’s field camp supervisor Cynthia Vanderlip, a biologist with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. But the mother was asleep about 150 feet away and didn’t hear her pup’s cries.
Vanderlip waited a while, then carried the tiny seal to her mother.
"The mom — she growled at me for that. She wasn’t very grateful. But they immediately nuzzled," Vanderlip told reporters Monday.
Another mother-pup pair wound up farther inland than they normally would be after the tsunamis, perhaps after being pushed ashore by the waves. But they were together.
The mammal is an endangered species, with only about 1,100 animals remaining in the wild. The seal’s population is also dwindling at a rate of about 4 percent per year in part because juvenile seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which include Kure, have been struggling to survive. Scientists believe this is because the youngsters are having a hard time competing with other species for food.
Vanderlip said if the tsunamis had arrived just a few weeks later, more pups would have been in danger across the archipelago of small atolls making up the nation’s single largest conservation area, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. That’s because the waves hit just before the peak birthing season. One pup was born at Kure just two days after the tsunamis.
Officials are still assessing the damage the tsunamis caused Kure and other parts of the monument. They plan to compare aerial photos and video taken from a Coast Guard C-130 plan last week with photos on file as part of their analysis.
They won’t be able to assess damage to coral reefs and other underwater habitats until divers visit the areas during a research cruise in the summer.
Midway Atoll, which is home to one million Laysan albatross seabirds, an old Navy base and an emergency landing strip, appears to have suffered the most damage. Scientists estimate a couple thousand albatross adults and 110,000 chicks were killed by the tsunamis.
On Kure, large coastal sand dunes blocked and slowed the waves, helping limit the carnage to three albatross adults and hundreds of albatross chicks. The dunes, which reach as high as 20 feet, have been growing over the past decade as state officials have removed invasive weeds and planted native naupaka shrubs.
In contrast, tsunamis washed over airplane runways and old seawalls along Midway’s coasts. Laysan island’s sand dunes were destroyed by a rabbit infestation.
Elizabeth Flint, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, said the tsunamis offered a preview of what could happen to the low-lying atolls as global warming lifts sea levels and causes storms to develop more frequently. Flint said she expects the high water events such as these to eat away at seabird habitats.
"This is a problem that we expect to have again, not because we’re expecting another tsunami but because of changing climate," Flint said.