Keeping it real for the seals


POSTED: Monday, November 10, 2008

Leah Kissel has a job she enjoys on several levels, not the least of which is that her work each day could be helping perpetuate the population of the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, whose number in the wild now is estimated at fewer than 1,300.






        Title: Marine mammal specialist


Job: Takes care of and conducts research on the two Hawaiian monk seals at the Waikiki Aquarium



Kissel is a marine mammal specialist at the Waikiki Aquarium, which has two monk seals in captivity—Nuka Au (sleek swimmer) and Maka Onaona (gentle eyes).

Kissel takes care of and conducts research on the two seals, who also are on display for the public every day in their 80,000-gallon swimming pool.

Kissel last week said the job sort of came naturally to her, since she loves both the ocean and animals.

At the University of Hawaii-affiliated Waikiki Aquarium, which she joined four years ago, Kissel also takes care of the octopus and a few other marine creatures.

Before joining the aquarium, Kissel briefly took care of research animals at the University of Hawaii, and before that she worked for about two years with dolphins at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory, until it was closed in 2004.

Kissel moved to Hawaii in 2002 for an internship at the lab, after graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a bachelor's degree in marine and freshwater biology.

She also is a graduate also of Daniel Hand High School in Madison, Conn.

Kissel is 28, single, and resides in Makiki.

  Mark Coleman: What is your official work title?

Leah Kissel: I have a few, but I guess the best would be marine mammal specialist.

Q: What would some of the other ones be?

A: Well, through the university system, it would listed as an aquarium biologist. But my title at the aquarium is marine mammal specialist.

Q: I noticed on a University of Hawaii Web site that you were listed as a research associate.

A: That's another one of them. (Laughter) It's because the aquarium is affiliated with the University of Hawaii and the state of Hawaii, and according to the state, my title is research associate.

Q: How long have you had this job?

A: Just over four years.

Q: How did you get this job?

A: I applied? (Laughter)

Q: Where were you living?

A: I was here. I had been here for about two years, working at the dolphin research lab (Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory). I'd been doing that for about two years. Then the laboratory shut down, so I was out of a job at that point.

So I was working at the lab animal services at the UH, taking care of the research animals—the monkeys, mice rats, frogs, hamsters ...

...Q: What kind of a background did you have to have to get this job?

A: They were looking for somebody with a bachelor's degree, and also they wanted at least two years experience with marine mammals.

Q: Which would have been the dolphins, right?

A: Yeah. I previously hadn't had any experience with pinnipeds, but I had two years of marine mammal experience.

Q: What are pinnipeds?

A: Pinnipeds are the order of marine mammals that include seals, sea lions and walruses.

Q: How many other people at the aquarium work with the Hawaiian monk seals?

A: I'm the primary, and then, because we have two seals and I can't be out there by myself seven days a week, I have a backup. There's another full-time aquarist here who is trained to take care of the monk seals.

But more frequently used than my backup, I have three UH student employees and one intern, and I tend to utilize a lot of the other student employees who are here as well, so they help out, like with the seals' feedings.

Q: There are just two seals?

A: Yeah, we have two.

Q: I thought I saw more there awhile ago.

A: If it was prior to 2001, there were three at one point.

Q: And what happened to that guy?

A: He passed away in 2001.

Q: How old was he—was it a he?

A: Yeah, it was he—they're all males. I don't know if they know exactly how old he was, but estimated at over 30 years.

Q: Is that an average lifespan for monk seals?

A: Life expectancy in the wild is 20 to 30, but usually very few after 25.

Q: Where did the two seals come from? Were they born in captivity?

A: Nope, there's no captive breeding. (There are) no Hawaiian monk seals anywhere that were born in captivity.

We have two males. The first is Nuka Au, and he came here in 1983. He was brought here by the National Marine Fisheries Service. He came from Laysan Island, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The other male that's here, his name is Maka Onaona. And he came here in 1984 from French Frigate Shoals

Both were brought here for the same reason, for research and educational purposes, but I think the reason he (Maka Onaona) was selected was he was like a 3-week-old pup, and he was found without his mother, so if he hadn't been brought in, he most likely wouldn't have survived, so he was a good choice to bring in.

Q: What do you think would happen to these seals if you let them back out into the wild?

A: That's not a possibility. They were not brought here with the intent of releasing them.

Q: Are there any other monk seals in captivity anywhere.

A: Yes, there's two other facilities that have them right now, and that's Sea Life Park, on Oahu, and Sea World in San Antonio, Texas. They have them in the back. They're not on display.

Q: What's your daily routine at the aquarium?

A: I guess things that happen every day would be cleaning and preparing the seal habitat for the day. And then also preparing the seals' diet for the day. Then, throughout the day, we have three feeding and training sessions. And, then, associated with all of those three things—cleaning up the pool, doing the fish prep and the feeds—there's a lot of record keeping, to make sure everything is recorded about how much they're eating, what they're eating, what time we feed them ...

...I maintain a few other exhibits here at the aquarium as well, as part of my job.

Q: Like what?

A: I take care of the octopus. We have fish called bearded armor heads; I take of them. And I also take care of a fresh-water planted tank—fresh water ornamental fish, as well as plants.

Q: What about the octopus—what do you do for him?

A: Anything—feeding, cleaning the exhibit, any maintenance for the exhibit.

Q: Is it just one octopus?

A: We just have one. They're not the type of animal that you can keep more than one in the same tank.

Q: Aren't they really smart and able to get away?

A: We have a lid that's locked down on the top. But yes, they're really smart, and we do some enrichment for them. Every octopus that comes through here, we teach them how to open a jar, so when we feed them, we give them their food in a jar and they have to unscrew it to get to their food.

Q: How hard is it to keep the pool for the monk seals clean?

A: It's open air, so it's exposed to daily Hawaiian sunlight, so it gets a lot of algae growth. So we have a full draining once a week.

But every morning the cleaning that we do is primarily to prepare for the visitors. That would be like cleaning the windows, to make sure they're free of fingerprints, and also sweeping up leaves that fell into the pool, and hosing down anything off the rocks that the seals might have left there. It's hosing down poop, but I don't know if you want to say that—the dirty part of the job.

Q: That's in the water, too?

A: That depends. They do tend to haul out onto the rocks at night, and then spend a good time of the day in the water. So there is some in the water. But it disperses fairly quickly, and the pool is set up with filtration, and we have an ozone generator.

Q: What's that do?

A: It creates ozone and puts it into the water, and that breaks down a lot of the bacteria and serves to clean up the water without using chemicals.

Q: Where do you put the seals when you have to drain the swimming pool,?

A: They stay in there. They just go down with the water, and then we just fence them off. There's no water.

Q: And they're cool with that?

A: They can haul out for days, weeks, or months. They're not like dolphins, who have to stay wet.

Q: How do you know if one of the seals is sick?

A: At each of our feeding sessions, we do thorough body exams, and also during that time we can assess the animals' health by seeing how responsive they are to us as the trainers.

Q: Do you think they get enough exercise and enough mental stimulation?

A: Oh yeah.

Q: Do you think they are happy?

A: That would be attaching human emotion, and we avoid doing that. That would be called anthropomorphism, and as animal trainers, we don't do that.

But as far as their care, we provide them with the best care that we can, and everything they need for a good quality of life.

Q: Are you in the water much?

A: With the seals? No. We don't do any in-water training.

Q: What about defending yourself from them? Is that ever a problem?

A: It's always a potential danger, I guess. We do still consider them wild animals, and we do take every safety precaution when we go out there. But as long as we follow the rules, we're relatively safe. And, generally, an animal like that, there's usually a warning that will come long before any aggression, like posturing or vocalizing. So as long as you pay attention to any of those warnings, you're generally pretty safe.

Q: What kind of research do you conduct on these creatures? Are you trying to make them learn tricks, like throwing balls or whatever?

A: No. They're not here for entertainment purposes. We have a few research projects going on. We just concluded the data collection and are working on the write up of a bacterial study. We're looking at shedding light on what the normal flora and fauna are in the oral and nasal cavities (of the seals)—basically that's the upper respiratory tract.

Q: Why would anybody want to know about that?

A: If you don't what's normal, and, say, they come across a seal in the wild, and they want to assess the health, and they swab it to see what bacteria is there, if they don't know what's normal, then they won't know what's not normal.

It's the same idea with humans. We all carry bacteria in our oral and nasal cavities all the time and they don't cause us harm, so we wanted to see what was there on the seals.

Q: How long did this research take?

A: We did about a year and a half of constant data collection, and that was twice per month for each seal.

Q: Do you write up the research yourself or with others?

A: I'm working on it with some microbiologists.

Q: Will that be published somewhere?

A: Hopefully. And the other main portion of the research is devoted to Hawaiian monk seal metabolism.

Q: What's that for?

A: There's several aspects, but briefly, we see a seasonal weight loss and weight gain in the seals, and part of our research right now is trying to determine possibly what causes that weight change.

Q: What is your favorite part of your job?

A: I guess the day-to-day working with the seals, because no two days are the same. And hoping that what I do might make a difference in their population.

Q: Do you think they will recover and cease to be an endangered species?

A: I'd like to think that all hope is not lost, and that they could make a turnaround, but I don't know.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Is this job a stepping stone or your dream job?

A: I guess it's sort of a combination of the two. I'm definitely getting a wide experience in marine mammal care and research.

I am also currently pursuing a master's of science degree at the University of Hawaii, so I don't know really what the future holds. But I definitely thoroughly enjoy my job here right now.

Q: Why did you want to go into this field?

A: I've always had a love of the ocean, and animals, and I put them together. And that sort of got me to where I am.