Field Notes: Science and Stewardship in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

April 15, 2018

The 2018 field season to assess Hawaiian monk seal and sea turtle populations.

Field camp tents along the shore of Laysan Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

On April 15, the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette departed for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to support research and recovery of endangered Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles. During its voyage, the Sette will deploy field biologists and their equipment at five sites: French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure Atoll. For the next three to five months, these dedicated researchers will assess populations of Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles from remote island locations in the middle of the Pacific. 

Here are their notes from the field:

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Partnering with USFWS

Biologist David Link from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined the Sette's latest expedition. He helped us load equipment from each field camp, and surveyed seabirds and endangered land birds, invasive plants, and ant species on each island refuge. He even revisited this 1961 photo study on Laysan Island, showing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s native vegetation outplanting. NOAA and U.S. FWS will use this information to advise management and prioritize biological research of these remote islands.

Historic photo Laysan from 1961

Historic photo of Laysan from 1961. (Photo: U.S. FWS)

Laysan in 2018 showing native vegation outplanting efforts.

Laysan in 2018 showing the results of previous native vegataion outplanting efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Photo: U.S. FWS).

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Picking up the field camps

We are happy to report that we picked up all field camps scheduled on this voyage of the Sette—Pearl and Hermes Reef, Lisianski Island, and Laysan Island. Our field biologists have been living on deserted islands (literally!) for the past four months. It's a rewarding job: collecting valuable data, tagging seals, and rescuing seals in need. But these biologists sacrifice a lot when they leave the comforts of home to spend an entire field season in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Check out the following updates to find out what the field biologists missed the most about home and how they enjoyed passing their time on the deserted islands.  

HawaiianMonkSealFieldResearchTeam_PIFSC.jpg

The 2018 Hawaiian monk seal field camp team aboard the RV Oscar Elton Sette- looking happy after their first hot showers, salads, and ice cream in months. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Pearl & Hermes Reef 

The biologists stationed on Pearl and Hermes Reef missed hot, freshwater showers, fresh crisp salads, ice cream, and above all, family and friends. Their favorite camp activities included dinners on the beach during sunset and "Blue Planet Tuesdays" with tea and popcorn.

Pearl and Hermes field camp biologists stand in front of a sign for the Hawaiian Islands.

Pearl and Hermes Reef camp biologists Darren Roberts, Paige Mino, Megan Roberts, and Alix Gibson. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Lisianski Island  

The Lisianski Island biologists missed their pets and road trips. If you've ever had island fever, just think how much you would miss road tripping on an island only three miles around. Their favorite camp activities included crafting, movies, and cooking up creative dishes from the camp provisions.

Lisianski field camp biologists stand in front of empty pen and sign to Welcome to Lisianki Island.

Lisianski Island camp biologists Brittany Dolan and Caroline Cummings. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Laysan Island

On Laysan Island, the team missed fruits and vegetables—or really, any textured food. Canned foods may be nutritious, but they lack the crisp and crunch of fresh produce. Their favorite camp activities included making up and celebrating holidays. "Christmas in July" was a real camp pleaser with holiday carols, crepe cake, and presents made from marine debris gathered off the beaches.

Laysan field biologists stand on beach at sunset.

Laysan Island camp biologists Amanda Mathieu, Hope Ronco, and Margaret Morrison. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

French Frigate Shoals

Most of the team on French Frigate Shoals will remain at camp until the next Sette mission picks them up in October. However, we did swap out one crew member this time. He missed beer the most—alcohol is not allowed in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. His favorite camp activities included catching every sunset of the season and having Sunday morning coffee on the pier with the sharks. 

Rainbow at French Frigate Shoals as seen from a field tent.

Lovely view from the tents at French Frigate Shoals. This camp will continue until October, monitoring both monk seals and sea turtles. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

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The Beginning of the End (of the field season)

On her return mission to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the NOAA Ship Sette stopped at French Frigate Shoals to resupply the camp, trade out staff, and conduct a few science projects. Some juvenile seals don’t get enough food to thrive at these remote islands, especially at French Frigate Shoals, so it is important for scientists to research how seals use their habitat and search for food here. To study their behavior, we deploy satellite trackers and special underwater cameras designed for marine mammals. Our team retrieved two of those seal cameras earlier this year.

    We outfitted one subadult male seal (Y76F) with a camera and a satellite tracker and we hope to get the camera back on the Sette’s return visit to French Frigate Shoals. Stay tuned to find out if the French Frigate Shoals team can find the seal and the camera before the ship returns (Video: NOAA Fisheries). 

      Juvenile male seal (Y2JU) took a long foraging trip from French Frigate Shoals to Brooks Banks (about 40 miles away). This video shows Y2JU stopping to forage along his all-night journey (Video: NOAA Fisheries).

        In this video, we get the seal's-eye view of the colorful variety of fishes populating the reefs and banks of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Video: NOAA Fisheries).

          This video shows juvenile male seal Y2JU swimming and diving as he searches the reef for prey to eat (Video: NOAA Fisheries).

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          Turtle Measurement

          NOAA Fisheries sea turtle researchers, Lindsey Bull and Marylou Staman, measure the length of a female green sea turtle (honu) basking on Tern Island.

          Scientists Lindsey Bull (left) and Marylou Staman (right), measure the length of a female green sea turtle (honu) basking on Tern Island (NOAA Fisheries).

          NOAA Fisheries sea turtle researchers, Lindsey Bull (left) and Marylou Staman (right), measure the length of a female green sea turtle (honu) basking on Tern Island. They can often identify the sex of a turtle by the length of its tail—male turtles have significantly longer tails. On Tern Island, 2T is the second female (short tail) and 17TM is the 17th male (long tail) identified. The field research team is spending 6 months on the main nesting beach in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and will tag all females nesting on French Frigate Shoals. This will show us the abundance of turtles in Hawaii.

          When it isn't breeding season, many of these turtles call the main Hawaiian Islands home and can be seen foraging in water or resting on beaches near you! We want to know where they're spending their time. Please email respectwildlife@noaa.gov if you see a sea turtle with a number on its carapace; include (1) the turtle number (photograph the turtle with its number from a safe distance) and (2) location (GPS coordinate preferred). #HonuCount2018

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          Turtle ID

          NOAA Fisheries sea turtle researcher, Jan Willem Staman, sneaks up on a green sea turtle basking on East Island within French Frigate Shoals to give her a unique indentifier - a number on her shell.

          Field scientist Jan Willem Staman marks shell of a green turtle on the beach on East Island in French Frigate Shoals. (NOAA Fisheries).

          NOAA Fisheries sea turtle researcher, Jan Willem Staman, sneaks up on a green sea turtle basking on East Island within French Frigate Shoals to give her a unique indentifier - a number on her shell. Each day, the field researchers conduct surveys of all sea turtles basking on the island and give each of them a number. They etch the number into the carapace of a green sea turtle with a tool like a dremel drill at a nail salon, and top it with non-toxic paint so it "pops" (so it's easy to see).

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          Madame Lancelot

          Hawaiian monk seal with an abscess on her back, rests on the beach at Pearl and Hermes

          Hawaiian monk seal with an abscess on her back, rests on the beach at Pearl and Hermes. She has since been sighted with the abscess drained, looking bright and healthy! (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          In their regular rounds around the Atoll, the field biologists at Pearl and Hermes observed a juvenile female Hawaiian monk seal (DH24) with an abscess roughly the size of a grapefruit between her shoulder blades. An abscess is a pocket of infection that can contain cellular debris, fluid, and bacteria—a combination also commonly known as "pus." Lancing abscesses on monk seals is far from glamorous work, but it makes a big difference for the seal's comfort and welfare. Sometimes, when abscesses grow too large, they impair a seal's movement (and can thus impact feeding). Abscesses can even erupt internally, leading to a full-body infection. For DH24, we grew concerned when her abscess had not started to drain on its own and she started to show signs that it was impacting her day to day life. So the field scientists lanced it (opened it and drained it) and administered antibiotics. UPDATE: DH24 was resighted on 5/31. Her abscess had drained even further and she is moving around comfortably and looks bright and healthy!

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          A Rare Mother's Day on Laysan Island

          Rare sighting of a 5-year old female Hawaiian monk seal with a pup on Laysan Island

          Rare sighting of a 5-year old female Hawaiian monk seal with a pup on Laysan Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          Early news from the field! We had a rare sighting of a 5-year old female with a pup on Laysan Island. The youngest known age for a monk seal to become a mom is 5 years. The last time this happened on Laysan was 27 years ago! We only have seven other records where a 5-year old female gave birth in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, though some moms outside the range of our study remain a mystery.

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          The Seals of Mullet

          UAS photo of three Hawaiian monk seals on Mullet Island in French Frigate Shoals

          UAS photo of three Hawaiian monk seals on Mullet Island in French Frigate Shoals (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          On this expedition alone, our UAS team has performed 26 flights totalling over 270 minutes, producing over 2700 photos of seal habitat and over 100 individual Hawaiian monk seals. These photos provide valuable information on size, age, number, and condition of the seals. Some photos have allowed us to identify seals that have been tagged. Others will allow us in the years to come to identify seals by their unique coloration and distinct markings. We're still experimenting to find the best altitude. This photo was taken at an altitude of 10 meters (~33 feet) above Mullet Islet, French Frigate Shoals. This mission's UAS team consisted of Pilots: Mission Commander Rory Driskell (PIFSC); Pilot in Command Mark Sullivan (PIFSC); Visual Observer Allie Northey (PIFSC); NOAA Ship R335 Oscar Elton Sette Crew: Lead Fisherman Mills Dunlap as Small Boat Coxswain and GVA Jeremiah Howard as Small Boat Crewman.

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          Days 20–21: The Cliffs of Nihoa

          The small boat returns to NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette after a rainy but successful day on Nihoa surveying for Hawaiian monk seals

          The small boat returns to NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette after a rainy but successful day on Nihoa surveying for Hawaiian monk seals (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          As the NOAA Ship Sette transited down the island chain toward Honolulu, we had an opportunity to survey Nihoa for Hawaiian monk seals with the unmanned aerial system (UAS). Carefully navigating through fog and around 900-foot vertical cliffs, the team scanned all sectors of the island where there might be monk seals. While the UAS team piloted the drone above, the shore team powered through the rain, applying bleach marks and flipper tags to identify individual monk seals. Back onboard the ship, Doc's spicy tom yum soup warmed our bellies and we prepped to return home.

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          Days 17–18: Seal TV

          Photo from camera tag that was attached to Hawaiian monk seal YW29

          Photo from camera tag that was attached to Hawaiian monk seal YW29. The camera was recovered at French Frigate Shoals (Photo: NOAA Fisheries). 

          Earlier this week, our French Frigate Shoals team retrieved the "seal cam" (video camera mounted to the back of a Hawaiian monk seal) from seal YR29 while aboard the Sette. Seal cams are valuable instruments for documenting monk seal foraging behavior and habitat use. When the ship returned to French Frigate Shoals, we downloaded the video and enjoyed an evening of entertainment watching seal TV starring YR29 and his monk seal friends!

          Scientists Helena Dodge, Stacie Robinson, Josh Carpenter and Sean Guerin hold one of the cameras.

          Field scientists Dodge, Robinson, Carpenter and Guerin (L-R) hold a camera recently recovered from a Hawaiian monk seal on French Frigate Shoals (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

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          Day 12: Kure Atoll

          Small boat approches Kure Atoll accompanied by spinner dolphins.

          Spinner dolphins accompany a small boat approaching Kure Atoll to drop off field scientists and equipment (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          We arrived at Kure Atoll, the most remote of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and the northern-most coral atoll in the world. Our lone scientist Keelan set up his tent and essential gear to settle in safely for the night. The other scientists on island (from the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources) were super helpful as usual getting Keelan settled in. The vet team searched, but did not find any rehab candidates on Green Island.

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          Day 11: Midway Atoll

          Hawaiian monk seal rests on the sand at Midway Atoll

          Hawaiian monk seal rests on the sand at Midway Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries). 

          We deployed our Midway team today. During World War II, Midway served as an important naval air station and submarine refit base, but now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages it as Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Nearly two million birds of 19 species nest on Midway. The atoll has the largest Laysan albatross colony in the world. Our teams documented four nursing and three weaned Hawaiian monk seal pups on the atoll. No rehab candidates were seen; all seals appeared healthy and happy. We also picked up our last two scientists, Keelan and Alix, who flew to Midway last night to board the Sette and join the teams bound for for Kure Atoll and Pearl and Hermes Reef.

          Hawaiian monk seal mom and pup on Midway

          Hawaiian monk seal mom and pup on Midway (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

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          Days 9 and 10: Pearl and Hermes Reef

          Buckets holding gear for field scientists at Pearl and Hermes Atoll

          Buckets holding gear for field scientists at Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          Our Pearl and Hermes Reef team was deployed over the last two days in fair conditions. Pearl and Hermes Atoll is huge (194,000 acres), but mostly underwater, with only 80 acres of land across seven islets. The atoll is ever-changing, with islets emerging and subsiding. The officers on the Sette scooted us in close and helped the deck crew load small boats and handle lines. Scientist Rory Driskell stepped in to crew a second small boat for offloading. The team later searched the entire atoll for rehab candidates. Good news: they saw only healthy seals! Among them were five nursing mom/pup pairs.

          A small boat heads to North Island at Pearl and Hermes Reef to check for rehab candidates.

          Checking for Hawaiian monk seal rehab candidates on North Island of Pearl and Hermes Reef (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

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          Day 7: Lisianski Island

          Field scientist offloads water for Lisianski Hawaiian monk seal field camps

          Field scientist offloads water for Lisianski Hawaiian monk seal field camps (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          Do you have a Fitbit counting your steps today? Field biologist Sarah's watch counted 10.5 miles traveled while setting up the Lisianski field camp. We had fair weather during deployment, but the shore break in front of camp was too big for the small boats to offload. So the team had to offload gear about 1/8 mile south where it was more manageable and then carry almost everything to camp. After a few round trips and about 20,000 steps in the sand, all four tents are up and power systems are on.

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          Day 6: Laysan Island

          Field camp set-up at Laysan Island

          Field camp set-up at Laysan Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          The weather is politely backing off as we continue our transit up the island chain. The second largest of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (after Sand Island at Midway Atoll), Laysan is still just barely one mile wide and 1.5 miles long. It is home to huge populations of seabirds and migratory shorebirds, including the native, endemic Laysan finch and Laysan duck. Good weather conditions, paired with expert handling of the NOAA Ship Sette, help the teams load the small boats full of gear. By early afternoon, we were setting up camp among these winged locals.

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          Day 5: It's Raining Buckets

          Teams work together to fill hundreds of water jugs on the deck of the NOAA Ship Sette before lugging them to shore for the field camps

          Teams work together to fill hundreds of water jugs on the deck of the NOAA Ship Sette before lugging them to shore for the field camps (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          Today at French Frigate Shoals, we lugged all of the gear for our field camps ashore. Among the items were 250 water jugs and countless yellow five-gallon buckets. After a long day of transporting supplies enough to sustain us for three months, we feel accomplished and hopeful for a successful field season ahead.

          Buckets water jugs 
          Buckets water jugs buckets 
          Tent poles water jugs 

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          Day 4: Tern Island is for the Birds

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          Field camp tents surrounded by sooty terns and albatross chicks at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          Tern Island is home to thousands of seabirds that create a constant cacophony of calls. At Tern Island, our teams assessed the health of two juvenile monk seals and outfitted them with instruments. While terns swooped overhead, we managed to give both seals satellite tags, along with a camera on the first seal, and a time/depth recorder attached to a flipper tag on the second seal. These instruments will contribute information to improve our understanding of young monk seal foraging ecology and survival at French French Shoals.

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          Day 3: Field–Forward Fashion

          The team shows off their quarantine field-forward fashion at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals

          The team shows off their quarantine "field-forward" fashion at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are home to fragile ecosystems and we do everything we can to minimize our impact on them. Sometimes that leads to us looking a little nutty on offload day! We follow quarantine protocols to avoid introducing pests like plants or insects, so all soft gear such as clothes, hats, and shoes must be new or only ever used at a specific island or atoll. In Honolulu, we have a sizable store of quarantine clothes for each island. At the beginning of the season, field camp team members pick out full wardrobes for their new “home” island, leaving an array of colorful and mismatched clothes behind. Then, members of the other island teams go through the remaining quarantine clothes and pick outfits to wear ashore to help during offload day. Clothing options can be limited, and because it’s only for one day, function usually wins out over fashion. Sometimes the outfits look great, and other times... not so much. In the end, protecting these islands will always be more important than dressing to impress.
           
          Q-clothes at each stop
          Dress to impress the wildlife
          Field-forward fashion!

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          Day 2: The Lehua Keyhole

          The "keyhole" at Lehua Island on a soggy day for Hawaiian monk seal surveys

          The "keyhole" at Lehua Island on a soggy day for Hawaiian monk seal surveys (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Mark Sullivan).

          Before entering the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the monk seal teams collaborated with Ni‘ihau residents to survey Ni‘ihau and Lehua Islands, at the end of the main Hawaiian Island chain. The team made it ashore safely, despite rough conditions that left them quite soggy—all day—until they returned to the ship! The Ni‘ihau teams traveled by foot, jeep, horse, and helicopter to count a total of 40 Hawaiian monk seals, including one weaned pup and one nursing mother-pup pair. The zodiac team circumnavigated Lehua Island searching high and low among rocky outcroppings and tidepools, but did not spot any seals.

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          Day 1: Departure

          NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette departs Honolulu

          The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette pushed off at 12:30 today. The forecast showed marginal conditions, so all of the scientists onboard doubled-down on organizing and tying down their gear, but the weather won't dampen our spirits! We're ready to survey the shores of Ni‘ihau and Lehua Islands tomorrow.

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          Prep Day: Counting Monk Seals from Above!

          Unmanned aerial survey photo of four monk seals and one sooty tern.

          Unmanned aerial survey photo of four monk seals and one sooty tern. Can you spot them? (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

          In preparation for the expedition, NOAA researchers conducted the first-ever unmanned aerial system survey of monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands. NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian monk seal researchers Jessica Bohlander, Mark Sullivan, and Josh Carpenter and Science Technician Rory Driskell took a small boat to Rabbit Island, Oahu to survey monk seals with an unmanned aerial system (UAS). The team used an APH-22 hexacopter to identify and photograph four seals on the island. This marks the first time a UAS has been used to survey monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands!

          NOAA Fisheries’ Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program is developing methods for using UASs to measure size and condition of monk seals, and identify seals at hard to reach locations. This week’s work was an important first step for the team, and valuable practice for the pilots prior to the mid-April deployment of the monk seal field camps in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where UAS missions will be conducted at several remote locations.

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          All photos taken under a NOAA Fisheries research permit.