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Return to Papahānaumokuākea Field Camps

September 01, 2021

For some, 2021 provided a long-awaited homecoming; for others, a new adventure.

Pearl and Hermes field camp setup including 5 tents along the shoreline and numerous bright yellow 5-gallon buckets with food and supplies. Four field campers sit on a driftwood tree near the waterline. Making a seasonal home on a remote island: These field biologists will spend the summer working hard in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument at one of NOAA’s seasonal protected species research camps. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument encompasses some of the most remote islands on earth. Would such an isolated place even show evidence of a year-long absence of human beings? In 2020, our protected species research teams relied solely on partnerships to conduct the field season in Papahānaumokuākea for the first time in nearly 4 decades, as countless activities came to a halt worldwide. This year, we triumphantly return to remote field camps throughout Papahānaumokuākea. Some of the biologists have worked for years at these field camps, studying Hawaiian monk seals or marine turtles. What will have changed after a year away? Our new, budding biologists have patiently awaited this date—how will they feel when finally reaching their remote island homes? 

While they are eager to contribute to decades of research, the camps are also integrating the Huli ʻia into their activities for the first time this season. Contributing to these seasonal observations will serve as a bridge between science and culture. 

An inflatable small boat with the driver and one crewmember. The boat is filled to its max with yellow 5-gallon buckets that contain food and necessary camp gear.
A small boat traverses the bright blue waters of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It’s carrying a load of camp gear in buckets to set up one of NOAA’s seasonal protected species research camps. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Team Lalo (French Frigate Shoals)

Seven field campers pose for a photo at the Lalo boat pier with a few yellow 5-gallon buckets of gear nearby.
Hawaiian monk seal and green sea turtle research teams at the Lalo boat pier. Left to right: Leah Kershner, Jon Schneiderman, Christy Kozama, Lindsey Bull, Rob McLean, Brittany Clemans, Jamie Stoll. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Lalo may have seen the most dramatic environmental changes in recent years—some of its tiny islets have disappeared with shifting seas, some reef and island areas were destroyed by Hurricane Walaka in 2018, and aging infrastructure from the past military outpost presents an ever-changing landscape on the human-augmented Tern Island. We are particularly interested to check on transformations at Lalo after a year away.  

Our marine turtle research team, deployed in March, noted exceptionally high numbers of Hawaiian green sea turtles nesting on Tern Island. They regularly rescued animals caught in the island’s degraded seawall. Our Hawaiian monk seal research team joined the Lalo camp in July. They were happy to find several healthy weaned pups. This site is notorious for high shark predation, making juvenile survival difficult. They have already begun translocating weaned pups from high to low-risk areas for sharks.

Team Kamole (Laysan Island) 

Three field campers pose for a photo along the shore.
Team Kamole enjoying their sunny island. Left to right: Alex Filardo, Marjorie Cox, Ann Humphrey. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Kamole is the largest island in Papahānaumokuākea, requiring a hot 5-mile walk through deep sand to fully survey the island. Team leader, Marjorie Cox, was worried that after a year away from camp, she might not remember all the survey sections around the island. Once on the island, she happily found that it all came flooding back like she’d never left. 

The biggest excitement for the Kamole team was sighting seal WK04, “Maiapilo,” who we took for rehabilitation as a malnourished pup in 2018. After a season of nutrition and care at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital in Kona, we returned Maiapilo to Kamole in 2019. Now she is a robust subadult, thriving in her natal habitat.  

While little appeared different about the island itself, we noticed the amount of marine debris on the beaches. Earlier this spring, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project had performed a massive debris clean-up, and their efforts were visible (or rather, invisible) on the clean beaches. 

A stretch of beach of Kamole Island littered with marine debris.
Before: A Black-footed Albatross looks over a stretch of Kamole’s beach, littered with the debris that frequently washes up on these remote islands. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.
A tern chick resting on a piece of bleached coral on the beach without marine debris in sight.
After: A tern chick has a clean beach to itself after the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project’s clean-up effort. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Team Kapou (Lisianski Island)

Three field campers, in matching magenta long-sleeve hoodies, pose in front of their field camp and gear for the season.
Team Kapou setting up camp. Left to right: Michele Bane, Sanna Bergstroem Matheny, Brian Battaile. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

The entire Kapou team consisted of new biologists embarking on their first season of research in Papahānaumokuākea. After a long day establishing camp on the small island, their first night may have been a little less restful than they’d hoped: On the night we deployed the Kapou camp, we received news of an 8.2-magnitude earthquake in Alaska and tsunami watch for Hawaiʻi. The ship was still in the area if we needed to evacuate. Luckily, the National Weather Service quickly downgraded the tsunami watch, allowing our tired campers to relax. This first-timer team was particularly struck by the beauty of the sunset over the vast horizon and amazed by the stars visible so far from the light pollution of civilization.  

While the island may not notice a one-year absence of a small team of people, our research certainly did. One key job of our monk seal biologists is tagging new seal pups with long-lasting identification tags that allow the seals to be monitored throughout their lives. This year, the teams found an entirely untagged cohort of seals born in 2020. Their first objective was to tag as many of the weaned seal pups and juvenile seals as possible.

Field campers restrain a weaned Hawaiian monk seal pup on the sand to measure the seal's body length with a measuring tape.
The Kapou team hard at work tagging a weaned seal pup. While two team members safely restrain the seal, the other takes measurements and applies numbered tags to the hind flippers. These identification tags help the NOAA teams track seal abundance and survival from year to year. Photo: NOAA Fisheries. (Permit #22677)

Team Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Reef)

Four field campers pose with varying levels of excitement as they stand along the waterline of the beach; two inflatable boats are anchored nearby.
Team Manawai excited to go boating to survey the atoll. Left to right: Matt Chauvin, Sarah Glover, Paige Mino, James Yost. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Manawai is an atoll of vast coral reefs and water channels. Visually, it is a pallet of vivid blues dotted by tiny islets—only 80 acres of land surrounded by nearly 200,000 acres of reef. Team Leader Paige Mino missed those blues, saying she was thrilled to be back at her “second home” after a long year away. 

Reaching the campsite at Southeast Island, the team was struck by the amount of verbesina (Verbesina encelioides)—its yellow flowers blanketed nearly the entire islet. This invasive plant creates concerns for bird habitat. Another invader has also been increasing at Manawai—a new species of Chondria algae was discovered at this atoll in recent years. Diver surveys earlier this year confirmed the threat is growing. Our Manawai team will take extra precautions while working in the atoll this summer by using special decontamination protocols to be sure none of the algae is moved beyond the atoll.

Team Hōlanikū (Kure Atoll)

Eight individuals pose for a photo on the sandy beach on Kure Atoll.
Team Hōlanikū: Together, NOAA and the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resource staff make camp set-up a breeze. Left to right: Megan Ely, Liz Jones, Amital Orzech, Suika Sono-Knowles, Michelle Smith, Andrew Sullivan-Haskins, Saxony Charlot and Alyssa Mincer. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Hōlanikū, the furthest atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (about 1,250 miles from Honolulu), was our last stop on this research cruise, and the last camp we deployed. Team Hōlanikū was abuzz with anticipation when they finally arrived at the atoll, having spent 10 days on the ship en route to their new island home and many hot days helping set up the other camps. 

This small team consists of just two NOAA biologists, both new to Papahānaumokuākea and monk seal research, but they would not be on the island alone. Upon landing, they were greeted by the biologists of the Kure Atoll Preserve with a special oli (traditional chant), welcoming them to the island. With such helpful partners, tour team set up and settled in quickly. New team member, Megan Ely, aptly summed up this season’s sentiments—after last year’s false start, she is thrilled to finally get into the field and put 2 years of training to use for conservation science!    

A vibrant orange sunset backdrop to the stern of the ship.
With the sunset at our stern, the ship heads southeast back to Honolulu after successfully deploying all of NOAA’s protected research camps in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

We wish all of our field teams a safe and scientifically fruitful season in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. We look forward to learning about their experiences and sharing in their observations as a way to connect the field scientists in Papahānaumokuākea with the community back home.

Next: NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette Departs for Papahānaumokuākea to Bring Home NOAA’s Remote Field Scientists

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Last updated by Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center on September 03, 2021