Hawaiian Monk Seal Updates
Get the latest monk seal updates from NOAA Fisheries in the Pacific Islands.
Pōhaku Passes Away After Fight Against Toxoplasmosis
NOAA Fisheries and The Marine Mammal Center are deeply saddened to confirm that the monk seal known as Pōhaku (RO28) passed away on April 1, 2020 after a 10 week-long battle with a deadly parasitic disease known as toxoplasmosis.
Pōhaku was originally rescued on January 22, 2020 and brought into care under the supervision of NOAA Fisheries veterinary staff at the Inouye Regional Center in Honolulu for assessment and treatment. She was subsequently diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by infection with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that reproduces in the digestive system of cats and spreads oocysts (eggs) into the environment via cat feces.
With help from the U.S. Coast Guard, Pōhaku was transferred to Ke Kai Ola, The Marine Mammal Center’s hospital for Hawaiian monk seals at Kailua-Kona, for further rehabilitation on February 19, 2020. This action occurred after NOAA determined she had stabilized enough for transport and would benefit from the Center’s ability to provide longer-term rehabilitative care.
Experts at Ke Kai Ola administered a series of medical treatments to Pōhaku over a several-week period to try to slow the rate of infection. During that time, Pōhaku regained some stamina and movement, and she showed some encouraging signs but those were short-lived. Her movement and appetite never fully recovered, and despite painstaking efforts to entice her to eat on her own, she also lost weight. Toxoplasmosis is known to cause long-term impacts to the brain, which are obscure and difficult to measure, but likely played a role in her ultimate decline. The intensive care measures and medications that were required to save her life and keep her hydrated probably also took a toll.
After Pōhaku passed away, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner from Oʻahu with a long-standing personal connection to the seal provided a pule (blessing) over the phone. In this time of restricted travel and social interaction due to COVID-19, it was incredibly meaningful to be able to remotely bring the animal care team and members of the community together.
A post-mortem examination was conducted by staff at Ke Kai Ola, and NOAA provided support from afar. We will continue to work with the Ke Kai Ola team to analyze samples and learn as much as possible from Pōhaku. We will provide updates on the results as they become available.
There are some simple things you can do to help prevent T. gondii from getting into the environment and impacting endangered Hawaiian monk seals like Pōhaku from toxoplasmosis:
- Keep your cats safely indoors.
- Dispose of cat feces and litter in the trash.
- Call our Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at (888) 256-9840 to report sick or injured monk seals.
NOAA is grateful to The Marine Mammal Center and other partners who played a role in Pōhaku’s treatment and care. To say it takes a village would be an understatement. While the outcome in her case was extremely unfortunate, we all hope that what we’ve learned from Pōhaku, and what we will continue to learn, can be applied to saving the lives of seals in the future.
Monk Seal RO28 Brought in for Evaluation and Observation
UPDATE: February 6, 2020
Over the past week, RO28 has begun to gradually improve. She remains in intensive care and requires daily treatment in order to receive essential medications, vitamins, antioxidants, and nutritional support. Some of the medications in her treatment regimen are used in other animals or humans to treat toxoplasmosis (or similar infections). It is difficult to administer these treatments to a 500-pound wild seal, requiring a team of 5–6 people each day. Fortunately, all this hard work is starting to make a difference. This week, her strength improved enough that she was able to swim in the rehabilitation pool. She even consumed a handful of fish during her swims—an appetite is another sign that she is starting to respond positively to treatment.
We would like to extend our immense gratitude this week to partners at Oceanic Institute for donating some mullet to entice RO28 to eat during her swim time and again to Ke Kai Ola for continued support.
UPDATE: January 30, 2020
Since RO28/Pōhaku’s arrival at the NOAA Fisheries facility on January 22, 2020, our veterinary staff have been working diligently to care for RO28. They believe they have determined what might be afflicting her: Test results strongly indicate that she is suffering from toxoplasmosis. Despite aggressive treatment, she is very lethargic, a sign that the infection is causing pain and severe inflammation throughout her internal organs.
Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by infection with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that reproduces in the digestive system of cats and spreads oocysts (eggs) into the environment via cat feces. Feral cats, of which there are an estimated 50,000 to 300,000 on the island of Oʻahu alone, are the primary source of T. gondii oocysts in Hawaiʻi.
Monk seals are exposed to oocysts by consuming contaminated prey or water. T. gondii organisms can cause organ failure by destroying vital tissues, such as muscle, liver, heart, and brain tissues. There is currently no vaccine for toxoplasmosis and treatment options for infected seals are extremely limited, risky, and untested in this species. What’s more, treating the disease requires a long course of intensive care, which is very taxing to the monk seal patient. To date, 11 Hawaiian monk seals are known to have died as a direct result of this disease; however, because more seals disappear than are found dead, it is likely toxoplasmosis has caused many more seal deaths.
Toxoplasmosis doesn’t just affect monk seals. Other marine and terrestrial species in Hawaiʻi, including spinner dolphins and ʻalalā (Hawaiian crow), have been killed as a result of this disease. You can help reduce the transmission of toxoplasmosis by making your cat an indoor cat. Learn more about this disease and what you can do to help prevent toxoplasmosis from affecting marine wildlife.
Most monk seals with toxoplasmosis are found dead without warning. Only two seals have been rescued prior to death, but, unfortunately, they both succumbed to the disease within 48 hours of rescue. Now, seven days into treatment, RO28 has survived longer than any other monk seal patient we've treated. However, we are very guarded in our optimism: RO28’s prognosis is still poor given the aggressive nature of this disease and RO28’s lethargic condition in intensive care.
NOAA continues to work hard to save RO28. As we do, we wish to express thanks to all of the partners near and far that have expedited tests, contributed resources, provided support and expertise, and sent thoughtful well wishes—especially the local community, Hawaiʻi Marine Animal Response, VCA Kaneohe Animal Hospital, University of California Davis, University of Illinois Zoological Pathology Program, The Marine Mammal Center - Ke Kai Ola, Hawaiʻi Kai Veterinary Clinic, Antech Labs, and Veterinary + Emergency Referral Center Hawaiʻi.
January 23, 2020
An adult female monk seal, RO28 (Pōhaku), was captured on January 22, 2020, and is currently under the care of NOAA Fisheries veterinary staff. On January 19, 2020, a volunteer with the Hawai‘i Marine Animal Response (HMAR) volunteer network observed RO28 exhibiting a behavior called “logging” in the Ko Olina area. Logging means a seal is floating on the surface of the ocean, acting lethargic, and not actively swimming. This behavior can indicate that a seal is injured or has underlying health problems. Some seals, including RO28, occasionally exhibit this behavior for short periods of time (up to a few hours) even when they appear healthy. After monitoring her condition and behavior, the decision was made to bring her into our NOAA Fisheries facility for further evaluation. We will provide an update on her status once test results are received. We sincerely appreciate HMAR’s support with this effort.
Juvenile Monk Seal RKC1 Found Deceased on O'ahu
January 30, 2020
NOAA Fisheries is saddened to report that juvenile monk seal RKC1 (also known as “Sole”) was found dead in Lāʻie, Oʻahu, on the afternoon of January 26, 2020. In 2018, RKC1 was rescued as a prematurely weaned pup on Molokaʻi and was successfully rehabilitated at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola facility in Kona. After his rehabilitation, he was released near his birth site on Molokaʻi and was sighted on Oʻahu shortly thereafter. He was seen only a handful of times since then, and we believe he spent most of his time on small offshore islets. We conducted a postmortem examination to determine cause of death, and will provide updates on the results as they become available.
Monk Seal Pup RL36 Found Deceased on O'ahu
January 10, 2020
NOAA would like to share what we have learned from additional analyses conducted since our initial post regarding the death of RL36 (Makoa). Necropsy and histopathology results support drowning in a lay gillnet as the cause of death. The histopathology exam, which looks for disease at the cellular level, confirmed that RL36 was healthy and showed no signs of underlying disease. RL36 was last observed a week prior to his death by a member of the public who called the sightings hotline; in photos submitted to NOAA his physical appearance looked normal. Unfortunately, decomposition makes post mortem exams difficult, so we are unable to rule out trauma with 100 percent certainty. However, the available information and similarities with other drowning cases, including young male monk seal RK88 found deceased in August 2019, strongly support drowning as the cause of death for RL36. NOAA encourages the public to follow the guidelines for Fishing Around Seals and Turtles. Report illegal gillnets to the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources hotline at (808) 643-DLNR (3567).
November 20, 2019
We are saddened to report that recently-weaned male Hawaiian monk seal RL36, also known as Makoa, was found dead on the north shore of Oʻahu on the morning of November 9, 2019. We were unable to identify a definitive cause of death from examination and initial necropsy results. Tissue samples will be examined further to look for causes of death that could not be detected during the necropsy, and we will provide an update once we receive the results. RL36 was born to well-known seal R5AY (a.k.a. Honey Girl) and was given his nickname, which means fearless or brave, by local elementary school children.
Despite Best Efforts to Save Her, a Moloka'i-Born Pup has Passed Away
November 15, 2019
RL76 was born between May 10-14, 2019, at Kalaupapa, Molokaʻi. On July 22, partners from the National Park Service noticed that she had swelling around her head and face, was breathing abnormally, and was staying close to shore in shallow water (a sign that a seal may be in too much pain to swim). The following day, a small team of NOAA Fisheries and The Marine Mammal Center staff were dispatched to Molokaʻi to capture the seal and bring her to Kona for rehabilitation at Ke Kai Ola. The US Coast Guard assisted in transport and, although they had to divert to another island to respond to a person in need of aide, were still able to get RL76 to the Center’s hospital, Ke Kai Ola, the morning of July 24. Despite the very best efforts made by the veterinary and animal care team at Ke Kai Ola, RL76 passed away the following week as a result of her injuries. NOAA is grateful to the National Park Service, The Marine Mammal Center, and the US Coast Guard for doing everything possible to try to save RL76. While we may not have been successful this time, there are many seals that are alive today thanks to these and other wonderful partners working hard to conserve Hawaiʻi's native seal.
Death of Juvenile Monk Seal on O'ahu
NOAA Fisheries is saddened to report the death of yearling male Hawaiian monk seal, RK88, also known as "Kuokala." He was found dead at Camp Erdman, Ka'ena Point on the afternoon of August 21, 2019. Necropsy and histopathology results support drowning in a lay gillnet as the cause of death. RK88's nutritional condition was being closely monitored earlier in the year, but he was sighted regularly in the weeks prior to his death in good body condition. Post-mortem test results confirmed that RK88 was healthy at the time of death and there was no evidence of underlying disease or other health concerns. NOAA encourages the public to follow the Fishing Around Seals and Turtles guidelines. Report illegal gillnets to the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources hotline at (808) 643-DLNR (3567).
Monk Seal Moms Reach Major Maternal Milestones
NOAA researchers at our Northwestern Hawaiian Islands field camps discovered two exciting monk seal pupping events in 2019. Both were on Lisianski Island.
When the monk seal field team landed on Lisianski in late May 2019, they discovered 14-year-old mom GV18, in her reproductive prime, with two pups! Could they be twins?
We know that monk seal moms occasionally adopt a second pup, but this usually lasts for only a short period of time because either the mother or the larger pup will drive the adopted pup away. In this case, no other seal mothers were missing a pup and GV18’s two pups were similarly sized, suggesting they were twins. GV18 nursed both pups together and weaned them at a slightly smaller than normal size about a week after being encountered.
A previous review of nearly 5,000 monk seal births over 26 years (1983–2008) revealed only seven sets of twin pups. Thus, monk seal twinning is exceptionally rare, occurring in only 0.1 percent of all births! DNA analysis on those twin pups confirmed they were all fraternal twins, not identical.
This year’s “twins” are not identical, either, as one pup is a girl and the other a boy. When we tag weaned pups, we also collect “snips” of tissue that hold the key to each seal’s genetic makeup. We will have to wait for DNA results on these snips to confirm if the Lisianski pups are indeed twins, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we have discovered another rare case of twin monk seal pups.
Born on Laysan Island in 1990, TG28 is a very special lady, having begun her pupping career as an 8-year-old. For reference, the youngest mom in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is 5 years old, though only a handful of 5-year-olds have pupped. TG28 was a homebody most of her life, but in 2015, at age 25, she packed up and moved over to nearby Lisianski.
TG28 is also a member of the equally exclusive Most Productive Mom Club. The record number of pups for a single mother is 18, a record held by just one mom.Two other moms are tied with TG28 at 17 pups each. We are hoping to find TG28 next year with a new pup—tying the records for both oldest mom and mom with the most pups.
Follow our monk seal researchers’ journey in the 2019 field camp story map.
Independence Day for a Hawaiian Monk Seal!
On June 23, 2019, a conscientious fisherman reported to NOAA that he hooked a seal. Volunteers and staff with Hawaiʻi Marine Animal Response and Kaʻena Point State Park located the seal after nearly two weeks of searching, and NOAA staff subsequently captured the adult seal this past Independence Day weekend and brought him in for care. NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian Monk Seal Program veterinarians successfully removed a hook, line, and sinker from the stomach of the seal using endoscope technology. After observing and treating the seal at the NOAA facility on Ford Island, NOAA released the seal at Mokulēʻia Beach, Oʻahu over the weekend. NOAA Fisheries is looking forward to working with the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources and the fishing community to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent future monk seal hookings.
Deceased Monk Seal Pup at Baby Makapuu
On Saturday, April 20, 2019, NOAA Fisheries staff and responders with Hawaiʻi Marine Animal Response recovered the carcass of a days-old, male Hawaiian monk seal pup at Baby Makapuu tide pools, in Waimanalo, and transported it to the NOAA Inouye Regional Center facility. We do not currently know the identity of the pup's mother. We will conduct a postmortem examination on April 29, 2019, in an effort to determine a cause of death, and we will provide updates as they become available.
Sad News About RI37
Adult female Hawaiian monk seal found dead.
March 14, 2019
Since the initial update regarding the death of RI37/Ipo, NOAA Fisheries has been pursuing additional analyses to help discern the cause of her death and would like to share what we have learned. Substantial decomposition made it difficult to come to a definitive conclusion, but we were able to rule out many potential causes of mortality.
There was no evidence of toxoplasmosis or leptospirosis. Given all the information we were able to gather, we believe it is most likely that the death was caused by a traumatic injury. It is important to note that we do not have enough information to speculate as to the type of injury, and we cannot rule out natural vs. human-caused, so we are not treating this as a suspicious incident at this time. Our findings suggest that the injury was fairly recent, but did not cause immediate mortality, and we do not believe the injury occurred in the location of the stranding. There was no evidence of head trauma, no external scrapes/cuts/bruises, and we did not identify any broken bones; however, it is possible that blunt trauma caused injury to the soft tissues.
February 8, 2019
We are saddened to report that adult female Hawaiian monk seal RI37 (born to the well known seal R5AY, or "Honey Girl") was found dead on the west side of Oʻahu on the morning of February 5, 2019. The initial examination and necropsy did not reveal a definitive cause of death, primarily due to decomposition. RI37 was in excellent nutritional condition and was not pregnant at the time of death. Tissue samples will be examined further to look for causes of death that could not be detected during the necropsy.
Eels in Seals, a Slippery Situation
How does an eel end up in the nose of a seal?
December 5, 2018
In the nearly 40 years that we have been working to monitor and protect endangered Hawaiian monk seals, we have only started seeing "eels in noses" in the last few years. Yet, our researchers have observed this phenomenon three or four times now. We don't know if this is just some strange statistical anomaly or if we will see more eels in seals in the future.
Hawaiian monk seals forage by shoving their mouth and nose into the crevasses of coral reefs, under rocks, or into the sand. They are looking for prey that likes to hide, like eels. This may be a case of an eel that was cornered trying to defend itself or escape. Alternatively, the seal could have swallowed the eel and regurgitated it so that the eel came out the wrong way. We might never know.
All of the seals that we have encountered in this slippery situation have been quickly caught by our response teams and the eel gently and successfully removed. The seals were released and haven't shown any issues from the incidents.
It's A Record Year For Pups in the Main Hawaiian Islands!
A record number of pups were born in the main Hawaiian Islands in 2018, be sure to enjoy observing them from a respectful distance.
November 2, 2018
So far in 2018, 30 pups have been born in the main Hawaiian Islands, soundly beating the previous record of 21 pups in 2013. Eight of this year’s pups were born to first time moms, including our most recent pup born to new mom R8HE in Maui Nui (Maui County). We know some folks get really excited about new seal pups and want to go see them in person - we do too! But too many visitors can unintentionally disrupt resting and nursing. That’s why we usually refrain from publicizing specific pup locations and we ask that you do the same. By not specifying pup locations in our social media posts, we can help keep disturbance to a minimum.
If you come across a Hawaiian monk seal mom and pup, please stay quiet and enjoy them from a distance, remaining behind any signs or barriers that might be present. If no sign or volunteer is present, please call it in to our hotline at (888) 256-9840.
Rocky's Pupdate From Kauaʻi
Hawaiian monk seal "Rocky" (RH58) arrived on a remote beach on Kauai on Saturday, July 14. On Monday morning, July 16, she was observed with a new pup. Watch the video.
July 14, 2018
Hawaiian monk seal "Rocky" (RH58) arrived on a remote beach on Kauaʻi on Saturday, July 14. On Monday morning, July 16, she was observed with a new pup. Rocky and the pup both appear to be doing well. We have not determined if the pup is male or female at this time.
All photos and videos taken with a NMFS research permit.