Hawaiian monk seals make tally count

PO‘IPU — David Leopold, a volunteer with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui, didn’t think he was going to be busy during the monk seal count.

He wondered if he would see any seals at all.

Coordinated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service, Pacific Islands Regional Office, teams of volunteers set out across Kaua‘i’s beaches in search of Hawaiian monk seals.

“I don’t know if we’re even going to find some (seals),” said Jean Souza, the Kauai programs coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary. “Our spot is on the (Pacific Missile Range Facility) base and I’m working with a high school student.”

Unlike the marine ocean counts, spearheaded by the NOAA section dealing with humpback whales, Souza said this count is organized by the fisheries branch with David Schofield, the marine mammal response coordinator.

Dr. Mimi Olry, marine conservation coordinator, was in charge of handling the lead chores.

“For this count, I’m just a volunteer,” Souza said.

When Leopold showed up at the Po‘ipu Beach Park site, he was greeted by long-distance paddle canoe racers. And seals. A pair of juvenile male Hawaiian monk seals were frolicking in the waters of the keiki pond.

Wearing two hats — one to monitor the seal count and the second as part of the conservation group — Leopold balanced his time between taking photographs of the seals while keeping curious beach-goers at a safe distance from the carefree mammals.

Amidst this juggling act, it became apparent that one young adult had a bite from a cookie cutter shark, and at least one of the seals bore an orange tag.

Leopold, who was working under the direction of site leader Bruce Parsil, said the monk seal count was taking place on many shores of the island between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

In some sections, teams would remain in place, Souza said, while in other, more remote areas and beaches, teams would simply access a beach, make an observation and move on to another site.

“Our mission is to count how many seals there are on the island,” Leopold said.

Seals spend two-thirds of the day in water and the remainder on land.

Based on information they know of monk seals’ lifestyles, the time period for the count is likely to correspond with when the mammal is on land, Leopold said.

“There is a possibility we may miss two-thirds of the population,” Leopold said. “But this is the estimated norm.”

Yesterday, this pattern was changed as the two frolicking male juveniles worked from one end of the beach, through the thicket of canoe paddlers and canoes, before settling in at the keiki pond.

Barking and splashing, visitors’ cameras clicked away as the pair were apparently oblivious to their audience.

Parsil needed to know the pattern of movement for the pair, and once that bit of information was logged, turned to other matters as the seal pair slowly made their way to open ocean.

The Kaua‘i Monk Seal Conservation Hui is a volunteer-based project with assistance from state, federal and private organizations, according to the NOAA Web site.

Volunteers are trained to assist in events involving reporting, monitoring and protection of Kaua‘i’s Hawaiian monk seals.

They also help at Kaua‘i monk seal pupping events and provide outreach and education to stakeholders, visitors and the general public.

They are currently developing a Web site to categorize and track Kaua‘i’s seals. The Web site also will serve to inform and educate volunteers and the community.

• Dennis Fujimoto, photographer and staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 253) or dfujimoto@kauaipubco.com.

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