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Decades of Insights: Monk Seal Researchers Share Unique Perspectives

January 29, 2024

Brenda Becker and Thea Johanos have studied endangered Hawaiian monk seals since the start of NOAA’s field work in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Forty years later, they are as dedicated as ever to the species’ recovery.

Brenda Becker sits in the sand on a beach with four seals spaced a distance apart along the water’s edge. Her back is toward the camera, and she is leaning back, appearing to observe the seals through binoculars. Brenda Becker maintains a low profile while photographing monk seals so as not to disturb them. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Megan Ely (Permit #22677, PMNM-2023-001)

The Hawaiian monk seal was designated as endangered in 1976 due to their rapid historical decline. The Endangered Species Act provides NOAA Fisheries with the framework to support their protection, conservation, and recovery. NOAA researchers began a standardized monitoring Hawaiian monk seal program to assess their population in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the early 1980s. Since then, many people have contributed to the slow and steady Hawaiian monk seal population growth we see today. However, two Hawaiian monk seal researchers have seen it all. Brenda Becker and Thea Johanos share their respective journeys and work in support of one of the most endangered seal species in the world.

19 Field Camp Seasons and Counting

Brenda Becker recently returned from her 19th field camp season with NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. Field camp season takes place annually for 3 to 4 months at five sites in the monument: 

  • Lalo (French Frigate Shoals)
  • Kamole (Laysan)
  • Kapou (Lisianski)
  • Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Reef)
  • Hōlanikū (Kure Atoll)

During these camps, researchers monitor Hawaiian monk seal births, tag pups to track survival, provide medical aid, and carry out many more supportive activities. One of Brenda’s favorite things about ‘īlioholoikauaua (Hawaiian monk seal) research is “being able to follow seals over their lifetime.” Studying the species since 1985, Brenda has followed quite a few seals’ lifetimes.

She recounts her favorite seal, Brendan, born on her birthday during her very first field camp season at Kamole. Brenda returned to Kamole in 2013 to help with camp set up and team training. “I stayed in a small tent near the shore and Brendan, who was 28 years old at the time; he would haul up right next to my tent at night to sleep. It made me smile. At the end of that field season, I was able to go back to Kamole and saw Brendan; he looked old and thin. It was the last time he was seen, and I was so grateful to have seen him on his last sighting and to have watched him from just being a little pup!” 

Brenda Becker sits on a concrete pier with the ocean in the background. She is facing the camera and smiling, holding a backpack and a camera. She has a pair of binoculars around her neck.
Brenda Becker, monk seal research scientist. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Ann Bell

Brenda points out that researchers don’t just study seals during field camps. They can be proactive and intervene in life-threatening situations to improve seal survival. They often disentangle seals, reunite moms and pups, and rehabilitate malnourished seals. “It's amazing that an estimated 30 percent of the Hawaiian monk seal population is alive because we were able to intervene! I've been fortunate to be involved in almost every aspect of this program.” In 2023, Brenda assisted the U.S. Coast Guard with the release of rehabilitated seals on Kuaihelani (Midway Atoll).

Brenda returned to Kamole in August 2023 as part of a short 28-day monk seal field camp. It was a big change from her first 6-month-long camp. Brenda, along with her team of three other monk seal researchers, accomplished a lot during their short season. “Our biggest accomplishment was being able to tag 34 of the 35 untagged pups we observed. Kamole has one of the highest numbers of pups born each year, and we had only 3 weeks to tag as many as we could find. It was gratifying to accomplish that goal!”

A group of four people wearing shorts and t-shirts are standing in a small circle on a beach with low lying vegetation. Another person is pictured in the distance, about 100 yards from the group.
Brenda Becker, on the far left, and Thea Johanos, third to the right, and other scientists on Kapou (Lisianski Island) in 1987. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

400th Monk Seal Pup Tagged

Thea Johanos has studied monk seals with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program since 1982. In 1988, while pregnant with her first child, she tagged the very first monk seal pup known to successfully wean in the main Hawaiian Islands. This past May, Thea joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and spent 4 days on Kamole. While there, she worked with their researchers to tag an additional four Hawaiian monk seal pups, putting her total of tagged pups at 400!

After 40 years of research, one would imagine that Thea knows all there is to know about monk seals. However, the journey continues. “My favorite part of monk seal research is that they are endlessly interesting and fun to study, and I am still learning new things about them every day.” Thea goes on to share, “Monk seals are one of only two mammals that are unique to Hawai‘i. The other mammal is a bat!” 

Thea Johanos wears a backpack and looks through binoculars at a sandy beach with a seal laying on the beach in the distance. A flock of frigate birds fly overhead.
Thea Johanos surveys for Hawaiian monk seals on Kamole (Laysan Island). Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (NOAA Fisheries Permit #22677, PMNM-2023-001)

Although Thea has spent the last 40 years of her life studying monk seals in Hawai‘i, she started her science career studying a much different animal on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. She recalls the varied twists and turns that life took to lead her to Hawai‘i. 

“In graduate school I studied the reproductive behavior of feral asses (donkeys) on Ossabaw, an island off the coast of Georgia. My first job after graduate school was studying the endemic forest birds on Hawai‘i Island for the U.S. Forest Service, where I was lucky enough to observe many endangered forest birds in the wild and discovered the first Hawai‘i Creeper nest. Before the program closed, I was recommended for a position in a new program, which was just beginning, studying endangered Hawaiian monk seals with NOAA at a remote camp at Kapou, in what is now the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Monk seals were rarely seen in the main Hawaiian Islands at the time, and I had never heard of them, but I was up for the challenge and have enjoyed working with them ever since.”

Past and Future Paths

When asked for career advice for those that might be interested in studying and protecting wildlife, Thea emphasizes the importance of taking opportunities. “You never know where life will lead you, and it is important to seize opportunities when they come about.” She feels fortunate for taking the road that led her to studying Hawaiian monk seals. Working to conserve and recover this species became a central passion of hers. 

The Endangered Species Act has provided decades of Hawaiian monk seal protection, and allowed for Brenda’s and Thea’s conservation research work over the decades. Thea leaves us with this parting thought, “Saving endangered species is important. When we lose a species it reduces the resiliency of the ecosystem that we all depend on and limits our future options.