Rehabilitated Twin Monk Seals Returned to Their Home at Midway Atoll

Tuesday October 17, 2006

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One of the monk seals investigates its new surroundings in the Midway Atoll ocean pen as its twin lunches on a herring provided by PIFSC biologists.

After a 5 month stay in the safe confines of a NOAA Fisheries care center in Honolulu, a pair of young Hawaiian monk seals has been returned to their birthplace at Midway Atoll, fatter and more able to cope with life in the wild.

The twin seals were removed from their natal beach at Midway in late May shortly after weaning when biologists noticed that the pups were severely underweight and malnourished. They were flown to Honolulu on a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 Hercules transport plane and placed in the Kewalo Basin Research Facility of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) where they were protected and nurtured back to health.

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The monk seal twins were offloaded at Midway from the U.S. Coast Guard C-130 Hercules transport plane after a flight from Honolulu.

The seals' return to Midway was accomplished by a team of PIFSC biologists under the direction of PIFSC contract veterinarian Bob Braun with assistance from Tenaya Norris of the Marine Mammal Center (Sausalito, CA), U.S. Coast Guard personnel from Air Station Barber's Point, and staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At 5 am on Tuesday, October 17, the seals were placed in separate cages and loaded onto a C-130 at Barber's Point for the long flight to Midway. At Midway, they were transferred to a 30' x 80' pen at the water's edge where they had ready access to the sandy beach and shallow nearshore water. The seals wasted no time getting accustomed to their new surroundings and enjoying a free lunch of herring provided by their caretakers. The twins will remain under observation and care for the next couple of months as they learn to feed on live fish in their ocean pen before joining the rest of the wild Midway monk seal population.

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Monk seal twins resting poolside at the Kewalo Research Facility

The young seals are only the fourth pair of monk seal twins recorded and the first known to survive past weaning. During their quarantine at the Kewalo Research Facility, they responded readily to the care provided by PIFSC staff --- three square meals of high quality herring daily --- and grew from only 65 pounds and 79 pounds when rescued to a robust 112 and 130 pounds.

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A monk seal is released from its cage into the ocean pen under the close supervision of Bob Braun (left), PIFSC contract veterinarian.

The captive care program is one of the means NOAA Fisheries and partner agencies use to aid the recovery of the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal population. Monk seal abundance is at a record low and their numbers are expected to fall below 1,000 within the next 5 years if nothing is done to enhance their survival. A key part of the current recovery strategy is to identify undernourished pups, restore their fitness through captive care, and thereby increase their chances of surviving to maturity.