A dream and collaboration fully realized

August 2015

Hermes and Pearl monk seals at Ke Kai Ola

NOAA Fisheries and The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC) have been longtime partners in Hawaiian monk seal conservation activities. TMMC has supported the rehabilitation and long-term care of numerous monk seals in the last decade. However, the less-than-optimal infrastructure in which these activities occurred gave rise to the idea of building a world-class rehabilitation facility that this critically endangered species deserved. Through years of hard work and fundraising, TMMC made this hospital a reality in 2014, starting a new chapter in the collaboration between NOAA and TMMC.

For this new collaborative effort to work, NOAA planned to use its field expertise and research vessels to find and collect monk seals in need of care and bring them to the Ke Kai Ola hospital on Hawai'i Island. TMMC would then provide supportive care for the seals until they are ready to be returned to the wild by NOAA. It has now been one year into this unique public-private partnership, but has this collaboration been effective and successful? Simply put: Yes, it has! Here is an update of the work that NOAA Fisheries and TMMC has completed to date.

In August 2014, the staff and volunteers of Ke Kai Ola were busy nursing the facility's first four Hawaiian monk seal patients back to health. Today, the number of successfully rehabilitated patients has doubled: six malnourished juvenile seals have been rehabilitated and released, and two more are well on their way to recovery with an anticipated release date of September 2015. The pinniped patients have gained between 20 and 400% of their initial body weights over the course of rehabilitation. In the process, staff and volunteers have learned valuable lessons about caring for the unique needs of this species, including the nuances of transitioning seals from tube feedings of formula to the consumption of whole fish. They have also improved upon ways to keep the seals comfortable, reduce human presence, and allow the animals to exercise natural instincts, such as by using creative feeding devices that mimic seal habitat and facilitate natural foraging behaviors.

A community of volunteers, which has grown from about five to 30 fully trained and integrated members, is largely the workforce behind these success stories. In addition to growing its volunteer capacity, Ke Kai Ola has grown in its geographic footprint. The construction completed over the past several months yielded a full-size fish kitchen, a dedicated treatment room, and an office. The monk seal community has begun using the outdoor space for educational gatherings and meetings, and Ke Kai Ola has become a focal point for engaging with other sectors of the Hawai'i community, including school groups and community leaders. Efforts are underway to design and complete the visitor pavilion to further build a platform for engaging visitors and residents alike. Overall, the completion of the facility in fall 2014 and the growing local volunteer workforce have made for more consistency in animal-care operations and have enabled the facility to integrate into the community.

For the seals, these focused activities increase their chances of survival in the wild. However, these individuals — mostly female — have a greater duty in carrying the species into the future, through their reproductive potential. Ke Kai Ola is looking forward to continuing to provide for seals in need in the months ahead, especially as the NOAA research cruise aboard the vessel Oscar Elton Sette returns to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in September to search for more animals in need of care, among other things.

Back to the Species in the Spotlight: Hawaiian monk seal web page