Heading to our small boat safety briefing, I overheard the Commanding Officer tell our Chief Scientist that a tropical storm was headed for Laysan in the next 48 hours. Laysan: the island we’d most recently departed. The same island on which we’d re-deployed one of our field campers, Carrie, and dropped off two bird biologists with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Let’s recap: We’d already had to deal with a hurricane. Then, a tsunami. Now, it was a tropical storm. Seriously?
Thankfully, a research vessel made up of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service team was headed to Laysan the very next day, and they could pick up the three scientists and take them to safety.
Just shy of 150 miles northwest of Laysan, the Oscar Elton Sette sat off the leeward side of Lisianski on choppy seas and under grey skies. It was a wet ride aboard the rigid-hull inflatable small boat that took us ashore. Lisianski has much the same history as Laysan—rabbits and guano mining—that devastated the native flora and fauna. Some speculate that at one time, there may have been a similar lake on the interior, as well, but it dried up, most likely after the island was ravaged of vegetation.
But there are no two beaches in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands alike, I’m learning. Much of the differences have to do with the sand, even though the color of the sand is the same across the archipelago: Bright white. So gleaming white that I had to switch to sunglasses with a darker tint. That’s because the sand is made of crushed coral from the bountiful reefs surrounding the islands.
Here, at Lisianski, though, the sand is exceptional for its powdery finish. It’s like walking on feathers. Or, for monk seals, like sleeping on a feather mattress, I suppose.
There is more than just sand on the beaches here. These islands are, sadly, gaining some notoriety for the marine debris that washes ashore. The other day, I saw a rusty propane tank and, alongside, a monk seal, its flipper thrown across the belly of the tank. Yesterday, a field camper told me about a pup she’d disentangled from a length of fishing net just after it had weaned. Marine debris is not a curse of just the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Today, I learned a Hawaiian monk seal in the Main Hawaiian Islands, one I’d pup-sat since birth, turned up with a pair of swimming goggles around its neck. Luckily, they broke and fell off before doing any damage to the monk seal.
At Lisianski, we hauled out four giant bags the size of Volkswagon Bugs that were full of marine debris gathered by the field team. We’re talking fishing nets and boat lines of every imaginable size and color. And buoys varying in size from a baseball to a beach ball and larger. Collecting marine debris is a Sisyphean task. Never-ending.
Our day may have started under grey skies, but that quickly cleared, replaced by a blazing sun. The storm made her presence known with 15 to 20 mph winds that felt great. They also kept the flies at bay.
The sand was the first thing someone told me about Lisianski. But I’ve learned the island is also pretty famous for its shoals.
Lisianski has been compared to the city of Honolulu in geographic landmass. But the reef extending beyond its south shore—called Neva Shoals—is huge, covering nearly 250,000 acres, about the size of the entire island of O‘ahu. Dubbed “coral gardens” because of their abundance and variety, Neva Shoals is home to a whopping twenty-four different species of coral.
It was on this side of the island that our monk seal field team of Hope and Sarah found one of our candidates for Ke Kai Ola, the monk seal hospital. Thus, she was named Neva. Neva joined Puka, picked up the day before, also on Lisianski. That makes four underweight weaned pups—Kilo, Ama`ama, Puka, and Neva—that based on size, statistics show would not have survived a year. Now, they will be given a few months to fatten up before taking on life in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and, hopefully, not only adding four to the population count, but the ten or so pups they will each produce during their lifetimes. That’s the strategy behind saving female seals: One plus one equals 10. Or something like that. I trade in words; not math;-)