By Kahi Pacarro
The cacophony of seabirds never ends in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. But as the sun begins to peak above the horizon, the crescendo reaches a level that makes sleeping past sunrise an impossibility. With so much work to do in bringing back the Hawaiian Monk Seal back from the brink of extinction, there’s no time to sleep in and Sulli is wide awake.
Sulli is a member of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP). It all started when a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) research vessel dropped off his team on a deserted island. Their presence at French Frigate Shoals took the human population from zero to four. Their closest contact to civilization then days away. They were on their on.
Summer is the calmest time in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and it coincides with the same time critically endangered monk seals give birth. With only 1,400 Hawaiian Monk seals left in Hawaii, each seal is integral to the species survival and the HMSRP is responsible for 30% of all those currently alive.
Today is Sulli’s day to do the entrapment walk, making sure that no seals are entrapped and if they are, untangle them and remove the entanglement hazard, and secondarily to identify any new entanglement hazards and remove them before they become a problem. With the constant influx of marine debris, this is an ongoing job. But unable to walk by any other harmed animals, the crew also regularly helps seabirds and turtles.
At the Northeast tip of the island, there’s a beautiful beach where seals and turtles tend to congregate, but right before the beach there sits an eroding double seawall that traps seabirds quite often as they fight for roosting spots. Less aggressive birds fall into the 4 foot gap between the two walls. It was here that Sulli found a female frigate bird stuck unable to get out. With the incoming tide and the Iwa bird running out of footing, Sulli lowered a stick – utilizing his experience – to coax the bird towards survival. After lifting her out, the bird expanded her giant 6 foot wingspan and takes flight. Sulli got his first save of the day and wasn’t even 8AM.
Walking back South down the abandoned coral runway, he noticed a disturbance of sooty terns obviously annoyed by something. As he approached, he eyed the culprit: a juvenile monk seal disoriented and headed the wrong way away from the ocean. If Sulli didn’t react quickly, the monk seal would get stuck, overheat, dehydrate, and definitely trample through numerous bird nests. Worst case scenario, the seal could die and with only 1,400 left, this cannot happen on Sulli’s watch. He considered herding the young seal but realized this could cause undue stress and the straight path goes right through dozens of seabird nests.
Luckily, he’s part of a team and without alerting the seal of his presence, he broke into a sprint back to base camp. His ninja-like skills were imperative to minimize monk seal interactions. The goal of the HMSRP is for the monk seals to not even know that they are there, even avoiding eye contact. Like guardian angels that step in to save you just in time, the HMSRP are the monk seals godsends.
The team returned ready to deploy the stretcher net. Sulli and colleagues calmly and cautiously placed the seal into the stretcher and loaded the ends onto their shoulders.
s they escorted the seal back to the interior of the atoll, they avoided the singing seabirds and their nests. A seamless transition had the seal back on the beach and into the water in no time.
This is their job, their summer, and their passion.
HMSRP volunteers and employees look forward to these 4 months every year and this life changing experience is not far out of your reach. If living in a National Geographic movie while saving critically endangered monk seals sound like a fun job for you, then connect with the HMSRP. The deployment season’s right around the corner and they’re looking for you.
Consider becoming a part of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, contact them at their Facebook page and apply for an experience of a lifetime. Search: Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.