Vol­un­teers vi­tal to monk seals’ re­cov­ery

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - FRONT PAGE - By CAMERON MICULKA

KAILUA-KONA — It’s 7:30 a.m. at the Hawaii Ocean Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Park south of the Kona In­ter­na­tional Air­port, which means it’s break­fast time.

On the menu: her­ring, be­ing pre­pared by vol­un­teer Cameron McDon­ald. Each of the seals was sched­uled to get about a kilo­gram and a half of her­ring for their first meal of the day.

Across the prep room, Sa­toko Mochida, a newer vol­un­teer, is open­ing up the fish at the gills and slip­ping in daily doses of vi­ta­mins and sup­ple­ments for the seals that will gob­ble them up.

It’s not al­ways glam­orous work at the

Ma­rine Mam­mal Cen­ter’s Ke Kai Ola, but fa­cil­ity staff say their vol­un­teers are cru­cial.

“There’s no way that we could do the work we do seven days a week with­out the vol­un­teers,” said Deb Wick­ham, op­er­a­tions man­ager for Ke Kai Ola, which serves as a health care fa­cil­ity for Hawai­ian monk seals, whose wild pop­u­la­tion num­bers only about 1,300. About 1,100 of those live in the North­west Hawai­ian Is­lands.

Be­fore Ke Kai Ola opened, there was no place for mal­nour­ished seals to go for care.

“Now they have a place to come to,” Wick­ham said. “We can take care of them and give them a se­cond chance.”

In Au­gust, the cen­ter brought in four mal­nour­ished monk seals, rang­ing from pups to a 5-year-old, that were picked up by a Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­search ves­sel dur­ing a trip to the is­lands.

The seals were in poor con­di­tion when

they ar­rived, but con­sis­tent care by the staff and vol­un­teers of Ke Kai Ola has given them a fight­ing chance.

“There’s hope for the species,” said vol­un­teer Art Tarsa, who is mar­ried to McDon­ald. “That’s re­ally what drives me.”

Tarsa be­gan his shift at about 7:30 a.m. Thurs­day by col­lect­ing sam­ples of the seals’ pool wa­ter that can later be tested.

Given the pa­tients’ health con­cerns, san­i­ta­tion at the fa­cil­ity is a top con­cern.

Once they en­ter the en­clo­sure where the seals stay, vol­un­teers step into shoes specif­i­cally for walk­ing around the area. And be­fore they en­ter the seals’ pools, vol­un­teers step into a tub of san­i­tizer to keep pathogens at bay.

Even the items used to pre­pare the

seals’ food take a run through a san­i­tizer.

“We have to be very care­ful we don’t add any­thing else to their sys­tem,” McDon­ald said in the prep room. “The whole idea is keeping it as low-bac­te­ria as pos­si­ble.”

Once the vol­un­teers are in­side the en­clo­sure, they quickly make their way around to the pools, toss­ing the her­ring to the an­i­mals.

It’s a quick, quiet process. Staff and vol­un­teers only go in­side the en­clo­sure when nec­es­sary.

“You have to ask your­self, ‘Do I need to go in there? How much time do I need?’” said Wick­ham in­side the en­clo­sure’s view­ing area, a walled off sec­tion where visi­tors can see the seals through a one-way mir­ror.

Vol­un­teers don’t talk to each other in­side the en­clo­sure to pre­vent the seals from be­com­ing ac­cus­tomed to hu­man voices.

Feed­ing the seals is just the start of the day.

Af­ter check­ing to make sure all the morn­ing’s her­ring was eaten, McDon­ald, Tarsa and Mochida then set to work rins­ing down the pool ar­eas be­fore the seals’ weekly weigh-in.

The old­est of the seals, a 5-year-old named Mea Ola, gained 5 kilo­grams in the past week and a cu­mu­la­tive 70 kilo­grams — about 154 pounds — since com­ing into Ke Kai Ola weigh­ing only 42 kilo­grams.

McDon­ald said the seal was “skin and bones” when she first came to the fa­cil­ity.

“Now, she’s be­gin­ning to look like what she should, and that’s re­ally nice,” McDon­ald said.

Be­tween the daily prep work, feed­ing, waste cleanup and other chores, it’s not an easy job.

“It’s hard work,” Wick­ham said. “It can be very hard work and stinky, smelly work.”

Vol­un­teers agreed.

“It’s chal­leng­ing,” Tarsa said af­ter the day’s work ended. “It’s some­times nasty.”

Re­gard­less, he said, he’s mo­ti­vated by the abil­ity to have a real im­pact on such an en­dan­gered species.

Ke Kai Ola has treated 19 Hawai­ian monk seals since open­ing in 2014, in­clud­ing the four cur­rently be­ing treated there. That means more than 1 per­cent of the en­tire pop­u­la­tion has come through the fa­cil­ity’s doors.

Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence like that is a big driver for Tarsa.

“That and they’re so damn cute,” he added with an­other laugh.

As cute as they are though, ev­ery­one stressed the im­por­tance of re­mem­ber­ing that the seals aren’t there as pets.

“You’re not ‘hug­ging the an­i­mals,’” McDon­ald said. “We can­not do that. They are not pets; they are wild an­i­mals.”

Tarsa said he makes an ef­fort to avoid cre­at­ing an at­tach­ment with any of the an­i­mals.

“I have trou­ble re­mem­ber­ing their names, and I think that’s just a de­fense mech­a­nism that, you know, I don’t want to have a name and that close of at­tach­ment.”

The seals of­fi­cially are known by tag num­bers, which NOAA gives them not long af­ter they’ve been weaned.

McDon­ald said she, too, tries to learn the tag num­ber be­fore the name. Yet, it’s still a bit­ter­sweet mo­ment when the seals are healthy enough to leave Ke Kai Ola and re­turn to their homes.

“You’re so happy to see that they’re big and fat and healthy and they’re gonna go home and live their nat­u­ral life,” McDon­ald said.

“And then they get put in the con­tain­ers and put on the Coast Guard planes and all of a sud­den you go …,” she added, im­i­tat­ing a cry.

That’s true even for an­i­mals that are more dif­fi­cult than oth­ers, she said.

“If they’re trou­ble, that means they’re fight­ers,” she said. “And if they’re fight­ers, that means they’re go­ing to sur­vive.”

LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii To­day

A 1-year-old male Hawai­ian monk seal takes a nap on the beach next to Bubba Gump’s in Kailua-Kona.

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