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Kailua-Kona care facility waiting for next batch of monk seals after successful graduation

Updated: 
April 18, 2016 - 11:15am

KE KAI OLA, KAILUA-KONA — For the moment the bass barks of monk seals absent from the Hawaiian monk seal hospital, as a rehabilitated group of seven has headed back to their homes throughout the islands.

The group rode in a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules airplane to Oahu on Thursday, an effort that took numerous volunteers and unexpected supporters, said Deb Wickham, operations manager for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital in Kailua-Kona.

This is the largest lift they’ve made and brings the total number of rehabilitated seals to 15, said Wickham.

She was at the center Friday, guiding volunteers who had arrived to clean up the facility and arrange repairs and upgrades.

Wickham hopes that a ship coming down from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands will bring four new pups who need care.

Many of their animals arrive after the summer campers working in the islands have a chance to observe the seals and advise National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration staff about their concerns, she said.

NOAA manages much of the seal habitat.

The pups that are considered unlikely to survive are brought to the center for rehabilitation. That typically includes seals who are malnourished or emaciated. Sometimes that is due to abandonment, but some seal mothers lack enough milk to properly wean their offspring, Wickham said.

The ship’s travel from the islands to the center generally leaves three weeks with no seals, said Wickham. They remain ready for new patients, should one be spotted, she said.

That gap in time gives a period where they can work without risking habituating the seals to humans, Wickham said. Habituated seals become comfortable with humans, at times relying on them for food instead of hunting for their own. Habituated seals have also bitten humans and been relocated.

“We want them to stay on the island,” Wickham said, so they do everything to avoid the seals becoming used to the people around them.

Instead, the seals grow used to each other and the live fish introduced into the tank, working to extract food from simulated sea bottoms and sleeping. Sleeping so hard that the planes passing overhead from the airport don’t bother them, Wickham said.

The crews use herding boards to guide the seals and hide human legs, and feed them as rapidly as possible. For a time they went as far as tossing the fish over the walls, but Wickham said food falling from the sky was unnatural.

When the seals are present, volunteers flush the pools and try to clean as rapidly as possible. But without seals, they have ample time to work over every nook and cranny.

The current group of seven rehabilitated graduates includes six headed to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the distant part of the chain and center of the population.

One, Kilo, is headed back to Niihau. She came in about 3 weeks old and was emaciated. She required tube feeding for an extended period before she was up to eating fish on her own. She gained almost 100 pounds.

The goal is to bolster the species, Wickham said. They’ve cared for more than 1 percent of the population of about 1,100, a reminder of how critically endangered the species is, she said.

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