Seal pups pack up for trip home
Twins fly back to Midway for transition back to the wild
Rare twin Hawaiian monk seal pups that were rescued on Midway Atoll five months ago and brought to Oahu for fattening are heading back to Midway today.
A Coast Guard C-130 Hercules aircraft was to have transported the juvenile seals on a five-hour flight to Midway this morning.
The twin females, designated PO22 and PO26, weighed just 65 pounds and 79 pounds, respectively, when they were brought to Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center at Kewalo Basin on May 30. Yesterday, they weighed 113 pounds and 131 pounds, still below the 150-170 pounds deemed ideal for weaned Hawaiian monk seal pups.
So instead of releasing them into the wild, officials of the National Marine Fisheries Service will put the twins in a 30-by-80-foot shoreline pen partially on the beach and in the water and continue feeding them.
"(It's) to give them a little better chance of survival while they learn how to forage on their own," said Bud Antonelis, chief of the Science Center's Protected Species Division.
It will also give the twins limited opportunity to socialize with the seals already at Midway, said Dr. Bob Braun, the marine mammal veterinarian who has been overseeing the pups' care. Braun believes the twins should be ready for release in one to two months.
The shoreline pen is part of the Fisheries Service's renewed captive-care program under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA officials hope to include five other female pups born in 2006 in the program. That will mean capturing them and placing them in similar pens to increase their weight to a level that will give them a greater chance for survival.
The population of the endangered Hawaiian monk seals is about 1,200 and at its current rate of decline is expected to dip below 1,000 in five years.
"Currently, the biggest problem with the recovery of the population is the inability of juveniles to survive," Antonelis said.
Antonelis said juvenile monk seals are not foraging successfully, and only one in five survives to sexual maturity. The goal of the captive-care program is to increase the juvenile seals' survival rate.
When PO22 and PO26 are released into the wild, researchers will place tracking devices on them to monitor their location and diving behavior.
"(It's) to make sure that they're feeding well," said Braun. "We want to make sure that we're helping them."
PO22 and PO26 were born on or about April 4 and weaned after nursing 42 days. Three other known sets of twin Hawaiian monk seals born in the past 30 years did not survive past weaning. Twins have a lower chance for survival because monk seal mothers have only enough milk for one pup.