Researchers Intervene to Assist Injured Monk Seals

Staff of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) Health and Disease group had an eventful start to 2014. On New Year's Day, a frequently-seen juvenile female seal (RK96) was reported off Oahu with an ulua hook at the corner of her mouth and several feet of trailing line, an entanglement hazard. HMSRP staff used an inflatable boat to reach the seal on an offshore islet, then removed the hook and line and successfully released the seal.

Juvenile female monk seal "R1KU" was successfully treated for a traumatic injury and infection of the right eye and then released to 
        the wild.
Juvenile female monk seal "R1KU" was successfully treated for a traumatic injury and infection of the right eye and then released to the wild.

Later in January, an injured monk seal on Niihau in the main Hawaiian Islands was brought to the attention of the HMSRP by the Robinson family, owners of the island. The seal known as "R1KU" was found with a traumatic injury to its right eye. Seals can often cope with such injuries in the wild, and because this seal appeared otherwise healthy, it was treated in the wild with an injection of long-acting antibiotics. However, when the seal was resighted a month later, there were indications it had lost weight and sustained an infection. Accordingly, HMSRP staff intervened and with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard, R1KU was transported to rehabilitation facilities at the new NOAA Inouye Research Center (IRC) on Oahu. There, surgery was performed to remove the damaged, nonvisual eye. R1KU made a full recovery over a period of three weeks and resumed appropriate behavior after being returned to the wild. The seal's release on Niihau was made possible through the support of the Coast Guard and the Robinson family. This was the first seal housed and rehabilitated at the NOAA IRC.

In addition to new facilities, rehabilitation staff how have new tools at their disposal. In March, HMRSP staff and colleagues from The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC) received two days of customized training in the use of a new, state-of-the-art, portable, battery-powered digital radiography system. The unit was donated to TMMC specifically for use on monk seals and will allow first responders to screen seals for ingested foreign bodies (i.e., hooks) before resources are expended in transport or rehabilitation of injured seals. The training helped prepare HMRSP and TMMC staff acting as first responders and/or rehabilitators to use this equipment in both field and hospital settings. The hospital settings will soon include the TMMC's new Hawaiian monk seal hospital ("Ke Kai Ola") in Kailua-Kona on the island of Hawaii. The hospital is expected to be ready to receive seals in the summer of 2014, as the pools, life support and water filtration systems, and interim food preparation facilities are already in and functioning. Construction of ancillary buildings and other elements of the hospital will be complete later this year. When not needed at the hospital, the digital radiography unit will be housed at the NOAA IRC so that it is ready for immediate emergency deployment.