LIHUE — The Hawaiian monk seal pupping season is in full swing on the Garden Isle, and 2014 has already seen the highest number of youngsters in several years.
“All the pups are healthy and have had no problems,” said Jamie Thomton of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As the Kauai marine mammal response program coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, Thomton spends summer days monitoring, tagging and tracking newborn pups around the island, as well as managing interactions between seals and people.
On Wednesday, he and his team received a welcome surprise when RK28, a female that was not thought to be pregnant, gave birth to the island’s fifth pup of the season.
“It is promising to see the gradual recovery of Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian islands and gives us great hope for the survival of this species,” he said.
In comparison, two pups were born on Kauai in 2013, and four the year before.
The majority of Hawaiian monk seals, about 900, reside in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. However, a smaller but growing population of about 200 seals inhabit the Main Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiian monk seal is one of only two remaining monk seal species.
The Mediterranean monk seal is also critically endangered, with a population of about 500. The Caribbean monk seal is extinct, last seen in 1952.
This year, all of Kauai’s pups were born on remote North Shore beaches.
“What they look for is protected reefs,” Thomton said of the mothers. “They try to pick protected, calm areas, with fringing reef on the outside.”
When a seal is born, Thomton and his team go out and immediately set up a small perimeter of fencing, which remains around the animals for approximately one week. In addition to alerting people of what’s on the beach, the fence prevents dogs and other animals from attacking the newborns.
Each day, Thomton and others check on the black-colored pups. Unless there is reason to intervene, they stand back and let mothers be good mothers, he said.
Monk seal pups weigh around 35 pounds at birth. For 40 days they nurse while their mothers fast. And by the time a pup weans, it can weigh between 160 to 180 pounds — often gaining 4 or 5 pounds in a single day.
“By the end, they are not that easy to tell apart,” Thomton said of the pups and mothers.
After 40 days, the mother takes off — usually during the night — leaving the curious youngster to forage and fend for itself. Thomton and his team then capture and tag each pup on its flipper.
He said the tagging process is quick and easy, similar to piercing an ear, and usually takes just two minutes. When finished, the young seal usually galumphs off then looks back, confused but not afraid.
“These pups are naive. They don’t have fear. They’ll approach turtles. They’ll approach logs. They’ll approach people,” Thomton said.
Which is exactly why NOAA stresses the importance of people giving the animals their space and never feeding them, as that only leads to problem behavior that could prove fatal.
So far, the 2014 Kauai pups are doing well.
“As is usually the case with MHI pups, they are all in excellent body condition, meaning they are very fat at time of weaning,” Thomton said. “This is not the case in the NWHI. Pups up there are usually much thinner.”
The first two on Kauai, born May 7 and 24, are male. The second two, born May 29 and June 28, are female, and the fifth is yet to be determined. The first three have already weaned, and two have been tagged.
One of the more well-known Kauai females to give birth this season is RK30.
“She’s very identifiable due to her many large scars, including a neck entanglement scar, numerous cookie cutter shark pit scars, one large shark scar on her flank and propeller scars on her belly,” Thomton said.
RK30 delivered the island’s third pup of the season, which is expected to be tagged next week as RF30.
Thomton said people are often surprised to learn that Kauai is home to only about 40 monk seals. Last month, his team spotted 29 individual seals.
“There’s not that many,” he said.
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, before they could be removed from Endangered Species Act protection.
Over the last decade or so, the population of seals in the MHI has increased about 6 percent annually, from about 15 individual seals in 2000 to between 150 and 200 today.
In the NWHI, however, where sharks and other predators are killing a large percentage of pups, the population has seen a 3.4 percent annual decline over the past decade, according to NOAA.
Thomton said NOAA is always seeking additional volunteers to help monitor monk seals on the island.
For more information or to report a monk seal sighting, call 651-7668.
Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.