Hawaiian monk seal RH38 is one very lucky pinniped.
The juvenile female seal that was rescued in a critically ill state in March, was recently released back to the wild on Kauai, according to Ke Kai Ola, the monk seal hospital in Kailua-Kona run by the Marine Mammal Center. She was released in good health with a tracking tag attached to her back, and appears to be doing well.
It is her second time being rehabilitated and released from Ke Kai Ola in the past two years.
“For an endangered marine mammal like the Hawaiian monk seal, the release of every individual is critical to help boost the overall population,” says Dr. Shawn Johnson, the center’s Vice President of Veterinary Medicine and Science, in a news release. “RH38’s recovery is an incredible success story that was full of medical complexities and highlights the importance of our ongoing partnerships to help save this species.”
The first time RH38 was admitted to Ke Kai Ola in August 2017, she was treated for malnutrition and a heavy parasite load.
During this second round, RH38 was treated for a slew of serious medical ailments including trauma, pneumonia, corneal damage and multiple organ infections due to sepsis.
While providing her with care, the center was trying to pinpoint the cause of her symptoms, which included weakness, broad-scale inflammation and malnutrition. So in April, she became the first seal to undergo a CT scan at North Hawaii Community Hospital.
The scan found that an infection in the seal’s back flippers, believed to have been caused by some sort of trauma, had spread to her bloodstream, causing a wide range of other problems.
RH38’s story highlights the seriousness of threats to this endangered species in the wild. Only an estimated 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals — a critically endangered species protected by state and federal laws – remain in the wild.
The center partners with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to provide care for ill or malnourished monk seals, and has rehabilitated and released 28 (which includes RH38 twice) since opening Ke Kai Ola in 2014. NOAA estimates about 30% of monk seals are alive today due to conservation efforts.
Shortly following RH38’s release in late July, Ke Kai Ola took in a seriously ill female pup from Kalaupapa, Molokai, with help from the U.S. Coast Guard.
The weaned seal pup, RL76, was observed with severe head swelling, and was displaying open mouth breathing behavior.
Radiograph and ultrasound exams showed the pup was suffering from head trauma, scratches and puncture wounds consistent with an interaction with another seal. Veterinary experts are watching her closely, and will consider the next steps to take once her trauma and respiration improves.
NOAA reminds the public to remain a safe distance from monk seals. Sightings of seals, as well as seals in trouble, can be reported to NOAA’s statewide, toll-free hotline at (888) 256-9840.