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The deal behind healing seals: Volunteers make Ke Kai Ola’s rehab mission a reality

Updated: 
January 16, 2017 - 9:56am

KAILUA-KONA — It’s 7:30 a.m. at the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology park south of the Kona International Airport, which means it’s breakfast time.

On the menu: herring, being prepared by Ke Kai Ola volunteer Cameron McDonald.

Across the prep room, Satoko Mochida, a newer volunteer, is opening up the fish at the gills and slipping in the seals’ daily doses of vitamins and supplements.

It’s not always glamorous work here at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola, but facility staff say their volunteers are crucial.

“There’s no way that we could do the work we do seven days a week without the volunteers,” said Deb Wickham, operations manager for Ke Kai Ola, which serves as a health care facility for Hawaiian monk seals, whose wild population numbers only about 1,300. About 1,100 of those live in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

Before Ke Kai Ola opened up, there was no place for malnourished seals to go for care.

“Now they have a place to come to,” Wickham said. “We can take care of them and give them a second chance.”

Back in August, the center brought in four malnourished monk seals, ranging from pups to a 5-year-old, which were picked up by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel during a trip to the islands.

The seals were in poor condition when they arrived, but consistent care by the staff and volunteers of Ke Kai Ola has given them a fighting chance.

“There’s hope for the species,” said volunteer Art Tarsa, who is married to McDonald. “That’s really what drives me.”

Tarsa began his shift at around 7:30 a.m. Thursday by collecting samples of the seals’ pool water that can later be tested.

McDonald, meanwhile was preparing the animals’ breakfast.

On Thursday, each of the seals was scheduled to get about a kilogram and a half of herring for their first meal of the day.

Given the patients’ health concerns, sanitation at the facility is a top concern.

Once they enter the enclosure where the seals stay, volunteers step into shoes specifically for walking around the enclosure. And before they enter the seals’ pool areas, volunteers step into a tub of sanitizer to keep pathogens at bay.

Even the items used to prepare the seals’ food take a run through a sanitizer.

“We have to be very careful we don’t add anything else to their system,” McDonald said in the prep room. “The whole idea is keeping it as low-bacteria as possible.”

Once the volunteers are inside the enclosure, they quickly make their way around to the pools, tossing the herring to the animals.

It’s a quick, quiet process. Staff and volunteers only go inside the enclosure when necessary.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I need to go in there? How much time do I need?’” said Wickham inside the enclosure’s viewing area, a walled off section where visitors can see the seals through a one-way mirror.

Volunteers don’t talk to each other inside the enclosure to prevent the seals from becoming accustomed to humans’ voices.

Feeding the seals is just the start of the day.

After checking to make sure all the morning’s herring had been eaten, McDonald, Tarsa and Mochida then set to work rinsing down the pool areas before taking the seals’ weekly weigh in.

The oldest of the seals, a 5-year-old named Mea Ola, had gained 5 kilograms in the past week and cumulative 70 kilograms — about 154 pounds — since coming into Ke Kai Ola weighing only 42 kilograms.

McDonald said the seal was “skin and bones” when she first came into the facility.

“Now, she’s beginning to look like what she should, and that’s really nice,” McDonald said.

Between the daily prep work, feeding, waste cleanup and other chores, it’s not an easy job.

Wickham said those looking for volunteer opportunities can contact her at wickhamd@tmmc.org to get on a list. She said while there isn’t too much to do now, she said there’ll be more work when the current cohort of seals leaves in the coming months, making room for more seals that need the attention of Ke Kai Ola.

Those who want to assist with the animals need to go through an animal husbandry course, she said, but there are other opportunities such as for those who want to be docents.

“It’s hard work,” Wickham said. “It can be very hard work and stinky, smelly work.”

Volunteers agreed.

“It’s challenging,” Tarsa said after the day’s work ended. “It’s sometimes nasty.”

“Only when there’s a lot of poop,” his wife interjected.

“There’s always a lot of poop,” Tarsa replied, laughing.

Despite the mess, he said, he’s motivated by the ability to have a real impact on such an endangered species.

Ke Kai Ola has treated 19 Hawaiian monk seals since opening in 2014, including the four currently being treated at the hospital.

That means more than 1 percent of the entire population has come through the facility’s doors.

Making a difference like that is a big driver for Tarsa.

“That and they’re so damn cute,” he added with another laugh.

As cute as they are though, everyone stressed the importance of remembering that the seals aren’t there as pets.

“You’re not ‘hugging the animals,’” McDonald said. “We cannot do that. They are not pets; they are wild animals.”

Tarsa said he makes an effort to avoid creating an attachment with any of the animals.

“I have trouble remembering their names, and I think that’s just a defense mechanism that, you know, I don’t want to have a name and that close of attachment.”

The seals are officially known by tag numbers, which NOAA gives the seals not long after they’ve been weaned.

McDonald said she too tries to learn the tag number before the name.

Yet, it’s still a bittersweet moment when the seals are healthy enough to leave Ke Kai Ola and return to their homes.

“You’re so happy to see that they’re big and fat and healthy and they’re gonna go home and live their natural life,” said McDonald.

“And then they get put in the containers and put on the Coast Guard planes and all of a sudden you go –“ she added, imitating a cry.

That’s true even for animals that are more difficult than others, she said.

“If they’re trouble, that means they’re fighters,” she said. “And if they’re fighters, that means they’re going to survive.”

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