POIPU — More than 150 people gathered at the Grand Hyatt Resort in Poipu Tuesday evening, as Greg Marshall and Charles Littnan unveiled approximately 10 minutes of new Crittercam footage of Hawaiian monk seals in their natural habitat.
“The best footage that we got was from Kauai seals,” said Littnan, the lead scientist of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The video showed the endangered mammals swimming with humpback whales, sleeping underwater, interacting with sharks and searching for food along the ocean floor.
In 1986, Marshall, the vice president of National Geographic’s Remote Imaging Program, developed the first Crittercam, an underwater camera allowing scientists to study an animal’s life from the animal’s point of view.
The idea was born during a dive off the coast of Belize, when Marshall noticed a remora, or sucker fish, clinging to a shark’s dorsal fin. He decided he wanted to capture the hitchhiker’s unique perspective.
During an event Tuesday, Marshall described the original Crittercam as an “absolute monstrosity,” first strapped to the back of a captive loggerhead turtle.
Today, the cameras — which cost about $5,000 apiece — are smaller and lightweight, and have been used on 70 different species, including whales, sharks, turtles, cheetahs, grizzly bears and penguins.
Most recently, the high-tech cameras have been deployed on the backs of Hawaiian monk seals.
Marshall said the technology has incredible scientific value, allowing scientists to see things they have never seen before, including where the animals go and what they eat.
Like with other animals, the goal of attaching Crittercams to seals is to learn about their behavior and get answers about the impacts they have on the ecosystem.
“Clearly, monk seals have an impact on this environment,” Marshall said.
“We don’t know fully what it is. We’re trying to figure it out. We’re just trying to get to the truth of the matter, whether it’s no impact or significant impact.”
Littnan described monk seals as a “very sensitive and polarizing topic right now.”
Local fishermen and residents continue to question whether the animals are native and belong in the Main Hawaiian Islands. They also say the seals are eating massive amounts of fish — up to 600 pounds per day — and threatening the traditional way of life.
Littnan said there is a lot of misinformation being voiced in the community. While it would be beneficial if everything his program discovered about the seals was positive, he said NOAA does not really care about that.
“My program works hard to save injured seals and to do all that, but when we’re doing our research we want the truth,” he said.
Over the last two weeks, Marshall and Littnan have been catching seals and deploying Crittercams on both Kauai and Molokai.
“We have three cameras out right now,” Littnan said Thursday, adding that they are an incredibly powerful tool.
“It makes everyone the same expert.”
Marshall said he and other scientists working with the technology have only begun to scratch the surface of possibilities.
“Even after 25 years, I’m still excited about this,” he said.
Other than beautiful footage, Carl Berg of the Surfrider Foundation of Kauai asked what quantitative data Littnan and Marshall had gathered from the Crittercams about the foraging habits of seals.
Out of 1,000 dives, the Crittercams captured 26 foraging events, according to Littnan. And for every fish a seal caught, they passed up 300.
As of Thursday, Littnan and his team had deployed eight cameras. Six of those captured footage and two malfunctioned. The team currently has an additional three cameras out at sea.
Don Heacock, an aquatic biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources on Kauai, questioned why NOAA and National Geographic would want to focus their research in the MHI, where the population of seals continues to thrive, instead of in the NWHI.
Littnan said the population here is still considered endangered and that much of the research being done here is population assessment. In addition, local fishermen are interested in knowing what impact the animals are having on the fisheries and environment.
It is all focused on figuring out a way to better manage the population and help it to grow, while also engaging and supporting the public and addressing their concerns, Littnan said.
Facts and myths
As part of his presentation, Littnan discussed the most recent scientific data about Hawaiian monk seals, as well as their history in the Islands.
The monk seal population is distributed throughout the entire Hawaiian Archipelago, approximately 1,500 miles from the island of Hawaii in the south to Kure Atoll, the northernmost of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Despite the NWHI being a monument and off-limits to fishing, the population of monk seals there (around 900 individuals) is declining. Threats include sharks preying on pups, starvation and male aggression, according to Littnan.
“Monk seals are doing terribly up there,” he said, adding juveniles have a 20 percent chance of making it to adulthood.
In the MHI, it is a very different story, with 75 percent reaching adulthood.
“Down here you have all sorts of ocean activities,” Littnan said. “You have sewage, you have boat traffic, you have beaches filled with people. You have people, period, and all of the good and bad things that come with them.”
Despite all that, the population of about 200 seals in the MHI is growing.
“They’re not just thriving, they’re really thriving,” Littnan said.
Unlike in the NWHI, the challenge is finding coexistence in an area where many locals recently began seeing and interacting with the animals.
“This is a shifting baseline for everybody, and right now tensions are really, really high,” Littnan said.
Littnan discussed the physical differences between Hawaiian monk seals and other species of seals and sea lions, as well as myths that the animals are not from here, but rather transplanted by NOAA from somewhere else.
“There is nothing else in the world that looks like a Hawaiian monk seal,” he said. “So, again, the question that I (ask) back is, ‘Then where did they come from? If not from here, then where?’”
Hawaiian monk seals are one of only two remaining monk seal species (the other being the Mediterranean monk seal), isolated from their closest relative 15 million years ago, according to NOAA’s website.
Littnan also talked about archeological findings of monk seal remains on Hawaii and Maui, historic newspaper articles about seal sightings in the mid-1800s, the animals’ ability to swim long distances and NOAA’s recovery goals for monk seals in the Archipelago.
In August 2007, NOAA signed and implemented a revised recovery plan for the Hawaiian monk seal. The goal is to reach a population of 3,400 individuals — including 500 in the MHI — and maintain them for 20 years.
Littnan said the population will never explode because monk seals are slow to mature, have low reproductive rates, are asynchronous breeders and are not colonial.
“You’re never going to see anything remotely close to what you see in California,” he said, adding that the population there is close to 400,000.
As for Hawaiian monk seals’ eating habits, Littnan said the average adult eats between 6 and 8 percent of its own body weight per day, equivalent to between 15 and 20 pounds. That is approximately 2 million pounds of fish per year for the entire population in the MHI, he said.
For more information about Crittercam, visit http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/crittercam.
• Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.