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A healing place for monk seals: Blessing and grand opening of Ke Kai Ola celebrated Tuesday

Updated: 
September 3, 2014 - 12:05am

The Hawaiian monk seals at this new hospital have been entangled in trash and fishing gear, struck by boats, bit by dogs and attacked by sharks. They are malnourished and sick. With fewer than 1,000 in existence, these seals are also critically endangered.

Some injured and ill monk seals are never spotted and die. The lucky ones will now come here to Ke Kai Ola, or “The Healing Sea,” a state-of-the-art hospital dedicated to the rescue and care of this species.

The Marine Mammal Center held a grand opening and blessing Tuesday at the $3.2 million facility at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority in North Kona. While scientists monitor monk seal populations and conduct interventions when possible, they didn’t have all the resources to provide the kind of care required until Ke Kai Ola.

“We built this hospital to save a species,” said Dr. Jeff Boehm, The Marine Mammal Center executive director.

During a behind-the-scenes tour of Ke Kai Ola, Boehm called Tuesday “a monumental day,” one that compliments the work already accomplished by The Marine Mammal Center, a California-based nonprofit veterinary hospital, research and education center that rescues and rehabilitates ill and injured marine mammals, as well as studies their health. Since 1975, the center has rescued and provided medical care for more than 18,500 marine mammals along the central and northern California coast.

With Ke Kai Ola, Boehm said the center will be a key partner in “enhancing a timely and collaborative effort in the conservation of monk seals.”

About 900 Hawaiian monk seals are found in the Northwestern Hawaii Islands, a 1,200-mile archipelago of small islands and atolls. Fewer than one in five monk seal pups in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands survive their first year because of threats including marine debris, food chain changes and predation.

Up to 30 percent of the population is alive today because of “heroic efforts” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Fisheries Service and their partners over the past few decades. Ke Kai Ola will allow even more seals to be helped, Boehm said.

Ke Kai Ola has two pens with pools for juvenile and adult seals, two pens with pools for neonates, quarantine areas, a medical laboratory, food preparation area, staff and volunteer support areas, as well as an open-air visitor and education center. While the facility is officially open, the last bits of construction, such as painting of interiors and installing of flooring in some rooms, are expected to be finished in two weeks, Boehm said.

However, the hospital is not open to the public. “Maintaining a balance of providing positive care and keeping the wildness of the animals treated is of utmost importance,” Boehm said. Still, the center plans to develop outreach programs to educate the public about the seals and conservation efforts, encourage environmental stewardship, and introduce youth to careers in veterinary medicine and marine science.

There are opportunities to volunteer at the hospital in areas including animal care, rescue and education. Those interested must go through training and be added to a waiting list, said Deb Wickham, Ke Kai Ola operations manager. Currently, Ke Kai Ola has about 50 volunteers, she added.

Wickham is Ke Kai Ola’s only paid employee, and efforts are being made to build its network of volunteers. In California, The Marine Mammal Center has more than 1,000 volunteers in addition to its 50-member staff. Volunteers are a tremendous asset, and Boehm said the center looks forward to capitalizing on their talents, intelligence and generous spirit.

Boehm estimated Ke Kai Ola’s annual operating cost to be about $250,000. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the center relies on individuals, corporations and foundations for 80 percent of its funding. He noted “funding from the Firedoll Foundation, as well as a very generous family foundation and hundreds of other donors throughout the world,” made the building of Ke Kai Ola possible.

Ke Kai Ola is a place of happiness. The center recently celebrated the release of its first four patients treated at the hospital.

Four young, malnourished monk seals — Kulia, Ikaika, Halai and Makaala — were admitted to Ke Kai Ola on July 9 after being rescued by the center and NOAA researchers in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Veterinary experts and training volunteers cared for the underweight seals under strict treatment regimes, which demanded limited visual and physical human contact — fish were thrown over screened pens, talking around the animals was severely limited, and herding boards were used to maneuver the seals safely and effectively, Wickham said.

The seals were deemed healthy enough to return to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands on Aug. 31. They are still en route to their homes aboard a NOAA ship, with the first one expected to be delivered at the French Frigate Shoals Wednesday, Wickham said.

To get involved or for more information, visit marinemammalcenter.org.