Two of six Hawaiian monk seal pups released last month after being rehabilitated by researchers head back into the wild in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, in this photo released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Surf’s up for seals
Satellite tracking shows females recently released from captivity are doing well
A half-dozen female Hawaiian monk seals at Midway Atoll could be the key to the endangered species' future.
Each of the pups, which range in age from 9 months to a year, was underweight after weaning from their mother's milk last year.
» The Web site to track the six seals is www.pifsc.noaa.gov/
» Sightings of seals can be reported to NOAA by calling 220-7802 on Oahu.
» Seals entangled in marine debris or stranded on land can be reported by calling (888) 256-9840.
» Human mistreatment of seals, on land or at sea, can be reported by calling 541-2727 or (800) 853-1964.
But after months in captive care, bulking up on high-calorie herring and getting top-notch medical care, scientists hope that the formerly puny pups will thrive.
Though Hawaiian monk seals have been around for 15 million years, their numbers have sunk to a point that their survival as a species is uncertain, said Robert Braun, a veterinarian on contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"There are 1,200 now, and if things continue on the current trajectory, in four years there will be 1,000," Braun said yesterday at the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.
Only one in five seals survives to reproductive age, scientists know from extensive study in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where most of the seals live.
The current "captive care and release project" was jump-started last May, when twins referred to as P022 and P026 by their flipper tag numbers were brought to Oahu to build them up at the NOAA Fisheries Science Center's Kewalo facility. They are the first set of twins to survive past weaning.
The sisters were returned to Midway in October, where they and four other underweight females were held in pens that included both ocean and beach. Before their re-release to the wild, the six seals had gained from 29 to 113 pounds each and underwent thorough health checks, Braun said.
One of six Hawaiian monk seal pups released in March after being rehabilitated by researchers makes its first steps back into the wild in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The seals were released in mid-March. When sprung, "they weren't quite sure whether they're ready to give up their free lunch," Braun said.
But satellite tracking of their movements over the past month indicates they seem to be doing well, Braun said. The satellite transmitters record the seals' locations and the depth of their underwater dives, which shows they are fishing, he said.
The tracking will go on for three or four months, when the batteries are expected to die.
Though competition for food from sharks, large ulua and other monk seals will be a challenge, "so far they are looking very successful," said NOAA ecologist Charles Littnan.
The captive care program is focusing on females because the survival of more young is the key to the entire species making it, Littnan and Braun said.
Scientists have cared for monk seals in captivity several times since 1979, Braun said. The most recent program was instigated to respond to the decline of seals in the wild, he said.
For now the Web site shows the location of each of the six seals over the past week, plotted on an aerial photograph of Midway Atoll.
Littnan plans to add information about how deep the seals are diving and to update the location maps twice a week.