Kauai monk seal rehabs in Kona

ALIOMANU — A yearling Hawaiian monk seal rescued from Aliomanu Beach last month is gaining weight at the Ke Kai Ola Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital on the Big Island.

She’s the first Kauai monk seal to be taken to the monk seal hospital, and she’s on the road to recovery, said Dr. Shawn Johnson, head veterinarian.

“She’s eating consistently and is up to 45 kilos (99 pounds) now. She was 40 kilos (88 pounds) when she came in,” Johnson said. “The wound she had when she was rescued is all healed up.”

The seal, named RH38, was found by Jamie Thomton, Kauai marine mammal response program coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other NOAA staff members.

She was born on Milolii Beach on Na Pali Coast in 2016, and was the largest weaned pup on Kauai that year, according to Angela Amlin, Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator for NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Regional Office.

Weight loss, lethargy and a superficial flipper wound that wasn’t healing captured NOAA staff attention when they saw her on Aliomanu Beach early in August.

“She was small and thin compared to the other yearlings on Kauai,” Amlin said. “Our team monitored her.”

Johnson got a call Aug. 10 that the team needed to bring RH38 into Ke Kai Ola for rehabilitation because she was continuing to decline. He flew to Kauai the next day to pick up the seal.

“So (they) went out and rescued her and put her in a kennel and brought her to their facility overnight at the DLNR base yard,” Johnson said. “We boarded a Coast Guard flight from Lihue to Kona and I flew with her.”

The Coast Guard donates flights to transport injured and sick monk seals to the Kona-based hospital.

Once RH38 was at Ke Kai Ola, Johnson and his staff did bloodwork. Most of it came back OK, according to Amlin, except it showed a large number of parasites.

“They’ve dewormed her and she seems to be doing a lot better,” Amlin said.

That’s not an uncommon condition among monk seals, especially the younger ones, Johnson said.

“These yearling seals, as they’re learning to hunt after they’re weaned, it takes several months to figure out how to eat and catch food,” Johnson said.

“If they don’t find enough food, they don’t gain weight quick enough and they get a high parasite load. When you start losing weight, the immune system isn’t as strong and it’s a downhill spiral,” said Johnson.

The Marine Mammal Center and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund raised $3.2 million to build Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital in 2014. Last Monday, Johnson admitted the 23rd seal to the hospital.

“All that have been admitted here have been released,” Johnson said.

Most of the Hawaiian monk seals that are admitted to Ke Kai Ola are from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and those are taken back to that area for release.

Patients are mostly yearlings and pups that have been weaned too early and will have a hard time surviving in the wild.

The hospital’s four pools have the capacity of housing 10 seals, though the most that have been housed at one time is seven.

Now, RH38 is chomping on a steady diet of herring, which have a high fat content, and should be gaining about five kilos a week now that she’s feeling better, Johnson said.

NOAA staff members are keeping tabs on her to determine how much more weight RH38 needs to gain before she will be released back into the wild. At that time, they’ll decide where to release the seal.

“What they want to do is get her to a weight level where they feel comfortable that all the worms are out,” Amlin said. “She’ll build up enough strength and have her immune system functioning normal (before release).”

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