A Hawaiian monk seal pup recently rescued on Kauai is in stable condition at Ke Kai Ola, The Marine Mammal Center’s hospital and visitor center in Kailua-Kona that is dedicated to the endangered marine mammal.
The male pup, RK58, was born on July 16 to monk seal RH58, and was involved in a switch with another mom-pup pair on the same beach. Multiple attempts at reunification were ultimately unsuccessful, leading to the decision to rescue the pup before weather conditions prevented intervention.
“While surprising to see a second mom-pup switch on the Main Hawaiian Islands, The Marine Mammal Center is prepared to provide rehabilitative care to any Hawaiian monk seal in need,” says Dr. Claire Simeone, hospital director at Ke Kai Ola. “Each individual animal’s survival is critical to support the recovery of the population, and we are grateful to give RK58 a second chance at life.”
Pup switches are natural occurrences observed annually in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but are less common in the Main Hawaiian Islands due to the lower density of moms and pups.
Last month, experts from The Marine Mammal Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the decision to rescue Sole, a young male pup born on Molokai that was also involved in a mom-pup switch. This is only the second observed occurrence of this type of switch in the Main Hawaiian Islands.
“This is an unfortunate but natural occurrence that we do see in the wild,” said Jessie Bohlander, research marine biologist and acting program lead for NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.
“We are lucky to have a great partnership between NOAA, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, The Marine Mammal Center, and others to quickly handle these situations, and are hopeful that RK58 will do well at Ke Kai Ola and be successfully released back to the wild.”
On July 16, Rocky gave birth on a remote Kauai beach near two other mom-pup pairs. The animals were observed daily by trained biologists and volunteers with NOAA and DLNR.
At about five days of age, volunteers saw RK58 switch nursing mothers with another pup. NOAA and DLNR personnel initiated reunification attempts, and Rocky took her pup back immediately with no aggression or confusion.
Late last week, RK58 switched mothers again. Due to a difference in ages of the pups and a concern that RK58 would not be able to nurse long enough from a different mom, reunification efforts were again attempted.
Unfortunately, Rocky rejected her pup and displayed signs of aggression toward him. Rocky then left the area, and her pup was left on its own after having nursed for a total of 19 days, well short of the typical 35 to 50 day nursing duration. It was clear that intervention was critical to ensure the pup’s survival.
“As we do with all our monk seal moms and pups, we worked hard to ensure Rocky had a successful nursing period. We did everything we could to keep Rocky and her pup together, but despite our best efforts, Rocky stopped nursing her pup and we had to intervene to save the pup’s life,” says Jamie Thomton, the Kauai Marine Mammal Response Program coordinator with the NOAA Fisheries Service.
“However, we are fortunate that the Hawaiian monk seal hospital Ke Kai Ola is prepared to accept orphaned pups like RK58.”
Simeone, along with Thomton from NOAA and Dr. Mimi Olry from DLNR, led the rescue effort for the pup this past Saturday ahead of anticipated weather conditions that would make a transport impossible.
The U.S. Coast Guard provided a flight for Simeone on a C130 from Honolulu to Kauai, and then on to Hawaii Island to safely transport the seal to Ke Kai Ola. Simeone accompanied the seal throughout the transport and is providing supportive care at the hospital with the assistance of staff and volunteers.
During an initial exam, Simeone noted that the pup is malnourished but otherwise stable. He is currently receiving nutrition in the form of electrolyte tube feedings, and as he grows stronger will transition to eating whole fish. The team plans to quarantine RK58 from Sole until veterinarians can confirm that RK58 is free from infectious disease.
Sole continues to progress well in rehabilitation as he makes the transition from tube feeding to free feeding on whole fish. Human interaction will be minimal to ensure that both seal pups stay wild. Once each seal reaches a healthy body condition and is able to forage on its own, it will be released back to the wild.
It is rare to rescue a monk seal from the main Hawaiian Islands, and this young pup is only the third pup from the main islands to be rehabilitated by the center. The Marine Mammal Center is a member of the Pacific Island Region Marine Mammal Response Network and is responsible for monitoring the seals that haul out on Hawaii Island.
The Marine Mammal Center has rehabilitated 23 monk seals since opening Ke Kai Ola in 2014, the majority of which were rescued from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The center partners with NOAA to support conservation efforts for the Hawaiian monk seal. Researchers estimate the current monk seal population to be about 1,400 animals, and about 30 percent of those monk seals are alive today directly due to conservation efforts led by NOAA and its partners.
Members of the public should keep a safe distance from monk seals.
Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or firstname.lastname@example.org.