SANTA CRUZ - UC Santa Cruz biologist Terrie Williams was on one of her annual research expeditions in Antarctica a couple of years ago when an e-mail turned her attention to the warm waters of Hawaii.
The message from the National Marine Fisheries Service offered Williams the rare opportunity to study the critically endangered monk seal, whose population has dropped to 1,100 and dwindles at a rate of 4 percent each year, marine scientists say.
Williams jumped at the chance, and in November she brought Ho'ailona, which means "a sign from the ocean" in Hawaiian, home to UCSC's Long Marine Lab from the island of Molokai.
"The monk seal is the most endangered marine mammal in U.S. waters," said Williams, who is overseeing the research in coordination with the NOAA Fisheries Service's Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, and other researchers. "If we can ever make a difference in saving this endangered species, now is the time to do it."
Ho'ailona, a gregarious male monk seal born in May 2008 who suffers from cataracts, was abandoned by his mother a few days after birth. He was rescued from a beach on the island of Kauai and nursed to health by scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service for a few months before being released back to the wild on Molokai.
Ho'ailona shunned the wild, and instead became friendly with the people of Molokai by hanging out at a popular wharf where he
His interactions with people soon became a risk to his own welfare as well as to public safety, and he was sent to UCSC's Long Marine Lab where he now lives in a special enclosure of water heated to 78 degrees with a cloth roof for protection from the wind and elements.
"We've created a little Hawaiian environment here by heating the water and putting a cover over the pool for protection from the wind and the elements," Williams said. "Ho'ailona is doing very well. He was a little thin when he arrived, but he's been rapidly putting on weight and is learning how to participate in our studies."
Thursday, the friendly, energetic seal slipped in and out of his personal pool at Long Marine Lab gulping down handfuls of herring fish from his trainer Beau Richter.
Williams, Richter and UCSC scientist Traci Kendall, are interested in studying Ho'ailona's temperature tolerances and how much energy he expends per swimming stroke to determine the "energy cost" of the seal's hunting and diving.
"No one has ever had the opportunity to conduct these kinds of basic physiological studies with a tropical seal," Williams said. "The monk seal population is in trouble, and we hope that these studies will help us to better understand their habitat requirements."
Using Ho'ailona's information and that from electronic tags recording the dives of wild monk seals, researchers can evaluate the suitability of different habitats for the seals. By counting the number of strokes they take to hunt or dive, researchers can assign an energy "cost" to each of those activities.
"It's a powerful noninvasive tool that we have used to study Antarctic seals. Now we can use it to determine what it costs to be a monk seal living under tropical conditions," Williams said. "The goal is to use this information to guide sound management decisions for the conservation of monk seals based on the best available science."
UCSC scientists also will monitor Ho'ailona's cataracts and possibly perform eye surgery later in the year.
UCSC's Long Marine Lab was chosen to house Ho'ailona largely because of the facilities ability to provide heated ocean water, Williams said.
"We are thankful for our partnership with UCSC to learn from Ho'ailona and will apply that knowledge to the conservation of monk seals worldwide in Hawaii and in the Mediterranean," said Dr. Teri Rowles, the coordinator of NOAA's Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. "Ho'ailona will teach us a great deal about monk seal biology and health."
Ho'ailona is likely to be moved to a public aquarium on Oahu in January after UCSC researchers learn all they can about the monk seal and ensure his health is in good standing.
"This is a very rare animal to work with," Richter said. "I want to help figure out the pieces of the puzzle causing this animal to go extinct. Is it something happening naturally, or something we're doing?"
ABOUT MONK SEALS
Monk seals are a critically endangered species worldwide. Historically, there were three species of monk seals:
The Hawaiian monk seal, which is found in the Northwest and Main Hawaiian Islands and has a population of about 1,100.
The Mediterranean monk seal found in the western Mediterranean Sea (primarily off the coasts of Greece and Turkey) and in the eastern Atlantic Ocean (off the coast of Africa and on the island of Madeira), and has a population of about 500.
The Caribbean monk seal was found in the Caribbean Sea but is now extinct after centuries of human exploitation and hunting.
The dire status of the two existing monk seal populations has necessitated international conservation initiatives. NOAA scientists and managers are working with experts around the world to help recover monk seals, and the information gained from treating and monitoring H 'ailona's development will help future conservation efforts for the species.
on the web
Ho'ailona's Care and Hawaiian Monk Seal Research
TO DONATE: The Marine Mammal Physiology Project (specify monk seal, TM Williams)
Center for Ocean Health, 100 Shaffer Road, UCSC, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 or visit http://www.mmpp.ucsc.edu.
Hawaiian Monk Seal Rehabilitation
INFORMATION: The Hawaiian Monk Seal Response Team Oahu, http://hmsrto.org; about monk seals, http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/kp2.htm