It’s time again for a team of researchers to head out to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands at Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, where they will set up camps for the next five months.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ship Oscar Elton Sette departs on Wednesday for Papahanaumokuakea, one of the largest, protected marine conservation areas in the world and home to endangered Hawaiian monk seals, threatened green turtles and millions of seabirds.
NOAA researchers this year will conduct the usual tasks — measuring and tagging all weaned Hawaiian monk seal pups, conducting beach counts and removing marine debris. A team of biologists will also measure and tag basking and nesting sea turtles and monitor nesting activities at French Frigate Shoals.
Another field team, however, will focus on researching how animals responded to the loss of East Island at French Frigate Shoals, where a majority of Hawaii’s green sea turtles nest, and dozens of Hawaiian monk seals pup. East Island was washed away by Hurricane Walaka in October 2018.
Field researchers from NOAA, along with six partner organizations, will focus their research and conservation activities at French Frigate Shoals as well as Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef and Kure Atoll. They will also take day trips to survey Niihau, Nihoa, and Mokumanamana islands and Midway Atoll.
The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette will transport state Department of Land and Natural Resources staff and supplies to Kure Atoll. At Lisianski Island, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will help the NOAA team find routes through the dense vegetation that blocks the shoreline and access to monk seals.
On Mokumanamana, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs will lead a small NOAA team past delicate cultural sites to access monk seal habitat.
This year, a teacher from Kamehameha Schools will also head out with the team, with plans to bring the work and stories of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands back home to students.
As in years past, after the Sette drops the field researchers off, she will also transport any discovered, underweight monk seal pups back to The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital in Kona for rehabilitation. Years of data have shown that underweight pups have a low chance of survival when they wean, so NOAA and Ke Kai Ola have collaborated over the years to rehabilitate the pups to a healthy weight, and then return them to their birthplaces.
Two monk seal pups from Laysan Island — ‘Akulikuli and Maiapilo — have been at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola since September, gaining weight. They are expected to return home to Laysan during the second leg of the expedition, outfitted with satellite trackers to determine how well they do following their release.