Malama Monk Seal Voyage #5: Laysan

Laysan Finch Chick
Laysan Finch Chick

I was walking on the leeward side of Laysan Island, over 900 miles northwest of Honolulu, when Megan, one of the remote field campers with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program approached me. The full complement of seabirds flew overhead or roosted in nearby bushes, including two new species for me during our trip: Bristle-thighed curlew and the endemic Laysan finch. We’d also already spotted close to two-dozen Hawaiian monk seals hauled out on the beach fringing the island but none were underweight candidates for Ke Kai Ola, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital.

“Have you heard the news over the radio?” Megan asked. When she isn’t surveying Hawaiian monk seals during the summer field season, she’s an EMT, a good person to have on the team in the wilderness of the sea.

“No,” I said. It had been a hot day with no respite from the sun. We’d only trekked a portion of Laysan Island. With little more than a thousand acres, it’s the second largest island in the 1,000-mile-long archipelago. Its rectangular shape has been compared to a poi board—a very large one at roughly one by one-and-a-half miles in size.

Like the rest of these islands, Laysan has a storied past. There’s some question whether Hawaiians inhabited the island, although there is clear evidence those residing on the Main Hawaiian Islands knew the island chain extended beyond Kauai. In the 1820s, Massachusetts’ whalers reported sighting the island. Then, the Russians mapped it. In 1890, the guano miners arrived and things began to change—rapidly. Max Schlemmer released rabbits on the island in 1894 for a meat-canning business that never happened. What did happen was the rabbits denuded the island. Reportedly, two-dozen species of flora were eradicated, and the Laysan rail, Laysan honeycreeper, and Laysan millerbird* went extinct. A scientist with the Bishop Museum estimated there were 10 million seabirds on Laysan in the early 1900s. One-tenth remained a short 10 years later. And while I haven’t found exact data on Hawaiian monk seals at Laysan, we know from various ship records that seal hunting expeditions occurred throughout the archipelago in the mid- to late-19th century.

We were on island to re-deploy two field campers who had left earlier in the season due to a hurricane threat. It was while unloading a storage unit at the highest elevation spot on the island—all of 50 feet—that I spotted the lake.

One of the really interesting thing about Laysan is its lake, the only lake of any kind in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It’s not any ordinary lake, but a hyper-saline lake. With the lake comes ducks. Surprisingly, the endemic Laysan duck has survived the island’s onslaught of guano miners, rabbits, hunters, and its own share of natural disasters that must have occurred over the millennia of the duck’s existence to rebound from its lowest recorded number of 11 in 1911 to several hundred or more today, thanks to habitat restoration work by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The ducks have become somewhat famous in bird circles for the way they forage—by running on mudflats, stirring up clouds of brine flies, and snapping up a meal as they go.

Speaking of flies, back on the beach, I was probably swatting at a few while Megan delivered her news. As the day heated up on Laysan, a swarm of flies seemed to gravitate toward me, sticking to my shorts and occasionally landing on my face. Earlier, just before we descended the rope ladder into the small boat that would deliver us ashore, someone had told me about the abundance of flies on Laysan and how they tend to favor people wearing dark-colored clothes—dark, as in black, the exact color of the cheap shorts I’d purchased from Ross Dress for Less.

Megan, however, seemed to be fly-free. “There was a major earthquake off Chile, and we’re under a tsunami watch,” she said.

As it turned out, the field campers didn’t get re-deployed, after all. Not for another day. They returned to the ship with us to eat a garden salad, garlic pasta with fresh, grilled asparagus, and a King Cone ice cream drumstick for dessert. (Well, that’s what I ate, at least.)

It was at dinner, a short few minutes after returning to the ship, that we learned the tsunami watch had been canceled altogether. There was no threat to Hawaii. Still, everyone slept in their bunks in their staterooms for one more night. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program and the crew aboard the Oscar Elton Sette it’s that safety is the number one priority.

Interestingly enough, the next day, off Laysan, we witnessed the tide ebb and flow, swinging all of six inches or so every thirty minutes. It was like watching a time-lapse video of the daily tidal flux. If we hadn’t been alerted to the news of the earthquake, I wonder if we’d even have noticed at all.

Hurricanes. Tsunamis. Heat. Bugs. These are the challenges of doing fieldwork.

*In 2011, scientists reintroduced millerbirds to Laysan Island, these from Nihoa, another of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. We dropped a couple badass bird biologists off at Laysan to survey their population. We’ll pick them up when we swing back through here in a week.

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