Tuesday | April 21, 2015
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New hope, home for curious monk seal

A well-known Hawaiian monk seal arrived Friday evening at his new home on Niihau, where he will hopefully interact with other seals rather than people.

The 6-month-old male seal, called Kamilo and known by the bleach mark on his back, H05, was relocated after nipping two triathletes who were swimming in Kamakahonu Bay on Tuesday. The 100-pound pup’s biting ways were attributed to curiosity and playfulness as he reportedly showed no aggression while following and swimming circles around the triathletes.

After being captured and caged, Kamilo was under the care of Michelle Barbieri, a veterinarian with The Marine Mammal Center. For three days, wildlife officials worked to find the best solution for this endangered species. To protect the seal, human interaction was intentionally restricted, Barbieri said.

The decision took longer than usual because of the federal government shutdown, which furloughed numerous federal workers, including those with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Marine Mammal Center works in collaboration with NOAA.

Releasing Kamilo back where he was found was not an option, especially because of the thousands of people in the area for Saturday’s Ironman World Championship. Hawaii Island was also not ideal because only five to 10 monk seals have been identified here, Barbieri said. Seals often visit multiple islands, she added.

The best location was one with a high density of seals and low human presence. It had to be a place where Kamilo could behave like a wild seal, Barbieri said.

Friday morning, The Marine Mammal Center got the call to move Kamilo to Niihau, a pristine and mostly empty island located 17 miles southwest of Kauai. Niihau has approximately 50 to 100 monk seals, of which at least 16 are young seals that Kamilo could potentially socialize with, Barbieri said.

Wildlife officials flew Kamilo from Kona to Lihue, Kauai, on a charter plane — a trip that took an hour and half. Then, they drove the seal to Port Allen, where he was then flown via helicopter to his final destination. He was released around 5 p.m. For 10 to 15 minutes, wildlife officials watched Kamilo mosey down the beach before disappearing into the ocean, Barbieri said. “It was a fantastic feeling knowing we did the best thing we could for him,” she added.

Prior to the release, wildlife officials placed a satellite tag on Kamilo’s back to monitor his movements. It will likely stay on him until he molts next summer, Barbieri said.

When the federal government shutdown is over, the public will be able to visit the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program website and facebook site to get satellite tag updates, as well as learn more about the entire seal population, which is about 1,100.

Between 150 and 200 monk seals are living in waters surrounding the main Hawaiian Islands, where sightings are becoming more frequent. The remaining seals are in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where their numbers are declining by about 4 percent annually.

There are several ways the public can help these seals. The first and foremost, Barbieri said, is helping keep their behavior normal. She said feeding, playing, petting and interacting with monk seals puts their future at risk. She added, there have been instances of seals being removed from the wild, relocated several times and then put into captivity because they had become a little too used to humans. Captivity is something wildlife officials want to avoid.

Interacting with marine mammals is also illegal. They are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and state wildlife laws, which prohibit feeding, harassing, harming or killing the animal.

The penalty for violating state laws protecting marine mammals is a misdemeanor offense with a minimum fine of $250 and/or imprisonment of up to a year. However, the penalty for violating the federal Endangered Species Act is much stiffer: up to $50,000, or imprisonment for one year, or both and civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation. The public must keep a minimum distance of 150 feet from monk seals. Barbieri encouraged the public to report all sightings and violations by calling 220-7802.

Another opportunity to get involved is to help raise the remaining funds needed to complete The Marine Mammal Center’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority in North Kona. The hospital is now under construction. With pools and treatment rooms, it will give seals a better shot at survival and a second chance when needed, Barbieri said.

During the wait, Kamilo was “a wonderful patient” that settled comfortably in his temporary holding area. Barbieri collected blood samples and did a health assessment of the seal, deemed “in great shape” and not stressed. Where Kamilo was safely kept worked, but was not perfect, Barbieri said.

For more information, visit marinemammalcenter.org or facebook.com/HMSRP.