Researchers launch Web site to monitor rescued, rare monk seals
HONOLULU ” Rescued from the brink of death by federal researchers and other scientists, a group of young endangered Hawaiian monk seals recently released into the wild in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands can now have their progress monitored by an adoring public.
A Web site, http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/psd/captivecareproject.php, launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Friday will be updated regularly with new pictures and information on how six pups ” including a set of rare twins ” are doing on their own after months of being nursed back to health in captivity.
So far, after about two weeks in the wild, things seem to be going well for the seals which can grow into 600-pound grey giants occasionally seen slumbering on beaches of the main Hawaiian islands where they are roped off, with warnings for tourists and residents to respect their repose.
The seals’ doe-eyed, pug-nosed pups, however, seem to have become increasingly vulnerable to everything from shark attacks to starvation.
“My nature is to worry, so I don’t use the word ‘confidence’ a lot. I’m very pleased at the way it’s gone,” Robert Braun, a contract veterinarian with NOAA said Friday of the pilot captive care and release program.
The big concern had been that after getting their meals brought to them by their care takers, the seals might not adjust well to lives of having to forage on their own.
“Both visual observations and tracking instruments have shown us that within a day or so they’re acting just like their other cohorts ” very normal,” Braun said.
Each of the seals are outfitted with two tracking devices, one that measures the depth and length of dives and another that tracks each seal’s location.
The Web site offers photos and brief biographical data on each seal, including what they weighed when rescued and when they were released. A link brings visitors to an aerial photograph showing each seal’s locations plotted on Midway Atoll, one of the northernmost group of islands in the Hawaiian chain, more than 1,000 miles from Honolulu.
The transmitters, which are glued to the animals’ skin, last about three months and then will be. Any remnants of the glue drops off when the seals molt.
The site will later be updated with more data on what the seals are up to and anecdotes about their behavior.
Named in part for their solitary ways, Hawaiian monk seals struggle in the wild despite efforts to protect their main habitat in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which were made a marine national monument by President Bush last spring.
“The population is in the worst shape it’s been in their 15 million years of existence,” Braun said.
Currently numbering about 1,200, the population will likely drop below 1,000 within the next four years if something isn’t done to help them, he said.
Fewer than one in five seals reaches reproductive age, making each birth critical for the species’ survival. The six pups released last month are all females who were dangerously underweight sometime after weaning.
The twins, known as PO22 and PO26, were about 66 pounds and 80 pounds respectively when captured. But they should have been closer to 150 pounds each.
Braun said the pilot program, which was set up in cooperation with other agencies and groups such as The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., is looking to expand the number of rescued seals.
The Web site was in part a response to a wave of requests for updates on the twins after their plight became public last spring, said Wende Goo, a NOAA spokeswoman.
But the hope is to also get people to learn more about the animals, which have homes in the main Hawaiian islands as well. One even showed up at tourist trodden Waikiki beach in February.
“Half of our job is doing research in certain species,” said Charles Littnan, an ecologist with NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. “But you’re not particularly effective if you’re not able to educate the public as to what you’re doing and how they can help.”
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