The other morning, we woke to a view of La Perouse Pinnacle, our first sighting of land in over 24 hours. Sitting at the center of the atoll known as French Frigate Shoals, the 120-foot tall rocky outcrop is the last remnant of the original volcano. The pinnacle was named after French explorer Jean-Francois de La Perouse who nearly ran aground on the shoals in 1786.
French Frigate Shoals is the largest atoll* in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with a 20-mile long, crescent-shaped reef, a dozen sandbars, and nine or ten tiny, coral islands, or islets, depending on the tide and/or ocean swell, that add up to approximately 62 acres of land. That’s not a whole lotta land in a really, big ocean.
After making sandwiches and filling water bottles, we headed to the aft deck for the usual pre-deployment boat safety briefing. Then, we lowered two rigid-hull inflatable boats, climbed down the rope ladder, and sent a team out to re-set up camp at the largest of the islands in the atoll, Tern, all of 3,300-feet, the length of an airstrip built during World War II. A few weeks ago, due to a threat of a hurricane, these field biologists had packed up camp and left. Now, they were returning to finish out their field season.
A second team departed the Oscar Elton Sette to survey seals at the various islets and sand spits that make up the atoll, each separated by a good 15 to 20 minute boat ride. In particular, we were looking for two underweight weaners.** If we could find them, we would take them to Ke Kai Ola, the monk seal hospital in Kona on Big Island, to fatten up.
Here’s the thing about these islands at French Frigate Shoals. They’re small. Some no bigger than half a football field. And they have little vegetation. Probably because instead of soil, the substrate is made of crushed coral.
But these islands, as remote as they may seem, aren’t exactly deserted. Thousands of seabirds breed and nest on every available surface, be it a clump of weeds in a crack on the runway, on a branch of a scrubby bush no taller than I am, lined up along the roofline of the boat house. There’s a bird perched on each and every post or piling sticking out of the ground. There are the boobies—red-footed, brown, and masked. There are the terns—white, sooty, gray-backed, black noddies, and brown noddies. There are the shearwaters—wedge-tailed and Christmas. Great frigatebirds. And red-tailed tropicbirds. Some squawk when you approach. Some glare. Others fly straight for you, as curious about me as I was about them.
We combed the atoll as best we could, doubling back at a few key islands. We found new pups that had birthed since the biologists departed. We re-sighted healthy weaners. And we tagged two pups that had weaned in the biologists’ absence. But we did not find any candidates for Ke Kai Ola.
Speaking of Ke Kai Ola, our next mission is to motor back to Honolulu and pick up Pearl and Hermes, two pre-weaned pups that have spent the past three months packing on the pounds at the monk seal hospital. We’ll be returning them to their natal stomping grounds.
*Charles Darwin was the first to explain how atolls form. Basically, over millennia, as coral reef builds up around the circumference of an island, the island itself sinks into the sea due to subsidence. Meanwhile, wind and water erode the island until only the peaks of the island’s tallest mountains remain above sea level, creating a lagoon between land and the ring of coral.
**Weaners are pups that have been weaned from their mothers. Typically, Hawaiian monk seal moms nurse their pups on the beach for four to six weeks. During this time, they do not forage and, thus their fat reserves deplete, their milk dries up, and they deflate into skin and bones. Hunger finally forces moms to head to sea for food. The bond is then broken, and pups begin to forage on their own.