Malama Monk Seal Voyage #3: French Frigate Shoals

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.

Welcome to Tern Island French Frigate Shoals
Welcome to Tern Island.

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.

Roosting seabirds at French Frigate Shoals
Roosting Seabirds at French Frigate Shoals.

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.

Juvenile Red-Footed Boobies Line Up on Boat Hoist at Tern Island
Juvenile Red-Footed Boobies Line Up on Boat Hoist
Juvenile red-footed booby on post at Tern Island
Juvenile Red-Footed Booby on Rusty Post.
Noddy on coconut at Tern Island
Noddy on Coconut.
Sleeping red-footed booby at Tern Island
Sleeping Red-Footed Booby.
Sleeping Monk Seal and Birds on a Metal Bar
Noddies Watching Over Sleeping Hawaiian Monk Seal.

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.

Hawaiian monk seal weaner at Tern Island.
Hawaiian monk seal weaner at Tern Island.

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.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. says:

    So blessed to be able to see your photos. Thanks for sharing

    With fond aloha………Nicki


    1. Kim says:

      I just wish I could post more, Nicki, but the ship’s wi-fi is super slow.


  2. Barb says:

    So interesting to get this news of the NW Hawaiian Islands and the various work going on. Say, are you getting any strong winds from any of the hurricanes?


    1. Kim says:

      We’ve had little to no wind the entire voyage thus far, Barb. And the past two days, the ocean has been incredibly smooth.


  3. Mary says:

    My long list of questions is being answered with each chapter you are supplying us. Mahalo!


    1. Kim says:

      Sure thing, Mary. We’ve got some exiting chapters coming up, too!


  4. Pam says:

    Wonderful adventuring! Fun photo of tree and birds too.


    1. Kim says:

      Thanks, Pammy!


  5. Love the tree photo! It’s like one of those college student/Volkswagen shots, or maybe more like guessing how many angels on the head of a pin. Thanks for taking us along, Kim.


    1. Kim says:

      Love the Volkswagen analogy, Hob!


  6. sherilynlee says:

    So I’m at practice the other night and one of my colleagues is a marine biologist. Unsolicited, he was talking about back in the day when he was in school, every classmate dreamed of going to French Frigate Shoals to study Hawaiian Monk Seals. Hawaiian Monk Seals are the adorable gateway creatures to giving your heart to all of the living beings in the Hawaiian islands – my characterization, not his. I said, “Funny you should mention French Frigate Shoals…held up my phone tuned in to your post.” He smiled. I know the wifi is slow, but know that you are reaching people! 🙂


    1. Kim says:

      Wow, Sherilynn, I love this. Thank YOU!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s