Expedition to Support Monk Seal Research and Recovery Efforts in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

August 11, 2017  

The NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai is departing on a 19-day research expedition in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) in support of Hawaiian monk seal and green sea turtle research and recovery activities.

Biologists with NOAA's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program and Marine Turtle Biology and Assessment Program have been deployed in the NWHI since May. They have been monitoring the status of monk seals and turtles while conducting research projects on the species' biology and ecology. The monk seal teams also spend a significant amount of time intervening to help monk seals survive on these remote islands and atolls. During its voyage, from August 11 to 30, 2017, the Hiʻialakai will retrieve researchers and their equipment from five sites—French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure Atoll. The ship will also support seal censuses at three other sites—Nihoa Island, Mokumanamana, and Niʻihau Island.

Field camp at Pearl and Hermes Reef, NWHI.
Field camp at Pearl and Hermes Reef, NWHI.
A group of seals at Nihoa Island.
A group of seals at Nihoa Island.
Weaned pup being transported to shore at Laysan Island in 2012.
Weaned pup being transported to shore at Laysan Island in 2012.

In addition to retrieving field researchers and their equipment, the Hiʻialakai will be transporting other precious cargo. A juvenile female seal will be returned home to French Frigate Shoals after completing several months of rehabilitation at The Marine Mammal Center's Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital in Kona. Another weaned pup that was picked up earlier in the year remains at Ke Kai Ola for additional care; however, she won't be alone for long, as the Hiʻialakai will also pick up malnourished juvenile seals in the NWHI to bring them to the hospital. Years of data have demonstrated that pups weaning underweight have little chance of survival. With partnership between NOAA monk seal scientists and the Ke Kai Ola, struggling pups get a second chance.

Periodically during the project, shipboard personnel will collect oceanographic data on subsurface ocean temperature and conductivity by taking CTD measurements. The data will be added to a comprehensive NOAA oceanographic database and used to better understand large-scale phenomena like climate change and the dynamics of local features like oceanic fronts.

The NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai will also provide support for several partner projects and agencies working in the NWHI. The ship will deliver supplies to State of Hawaiʻi and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service camps, and will pick up NOAA sea turtle biologists who have worked alongside the seal team at French Frigate Shoals.