Molokai Monk Seal Transported for Treatment
By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor
An ailing, 4-year-old female Hawaiian monk seal from Molokai got a lift to the animal hospital and is receiving treatment after suffering significant weight loss this month.
A Molokai community member reported the seal, known as RL68, to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on April 10. The observer noted alarming weight loss and the seal becoming less and less energetic over several weeks. NOAA officials gathered more information in partnership with Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR) personnel on Molokai.
“NOAA Fisheries decided that medical assessment and treatment were in RL68’s best interest, given her unusually thin body condition and notable behavior change,” said Diana Kramer, regional stranding coordinator at NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office.
As it happened, a special ride was ready to give RL68 a flight to get care.
“The U.S. Coast Guard was conducting a pre-planned mission on Molokai on April 13, and offered to transport RL68 for emergency care since they would already be in the area,” said Kramer. “They transported RL68 to the only dedicated monk seal hospital in Hawaii, The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola hospital in Kona.”
There, the seal will receive diagnostic testing including blood tests and X-rays, along with hearty meals of calorie-rich herring, according to NOAA.
“RL68 is a well-known seal that frequents west side beaches on Molokai. But you never really know where a seal is going to be,” said Todd Yamashita, HMAR’s Molokai Community Programs Manager. “Imagine our surprise that RL68—the seal we were looking for—was the first seal we spotted the day of the rescue operation!”
The seal was found on April 12 at Kaupoa.
“Being directly involved with helping one of our Molokai seals, with the help of Molokai HMAR volunteers who know and love these shorelines, that is the highlight of this experience,” Yamashita said.
Though the reason for RL68’s extreme weight loss and lethargy is pending testing, Kramer said common causes for these symptoms can include “illness or disease, ingestion of a foreign body, or other issues that diagnostic testing will reveal.”
Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most endangered seal species in the world with fewer than 1600 individuals living today, and are found only in Hawaii.
“Each individual is critical to the species’ recovery,” said Kramer. “And females in particular, like RL68, are especially important to helping the population grow and recover with each pup they birth.”
She said in the main Hawaiian Islands, leading causes of death are all associated with human-related factors, not the result of natural selection.
“For example, the top disease threat to Hawaiian monk seals is toxoplasmosis, which is a parasite transmitted in an infectious form exclusively by outdoor domestic and feral cats,” explained Kramer. “Because cats are not native to the islands and were introduced by humans, we have an obligation to try to help the species affected by the disease these cats transmit.”
Hawaiian monk seals are also protected by law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
“Under these laws, [NOAA is] charged with protecting and helping the population recover,” said Kramer. “With all of the threats these seals are facing, they need our intervention to help ensure they don’t become extinct one day.”
NOAA staff will provide updates on RL68 in the coming weeks during the seal’s stay at Ke Kai Ola.
“Although we’ll have to wait several weeks to get the results of her tests, this care will provide her with the best possible chance of diagnosis and recovery,” said Kramer.