The rocking and rolling woke me. We’d had a few rough nights throughout the voyage, but this was the worst. I found myself scrabbling for the bed sheets. But when I opened my eyes, I wasn’t in my bunk aboard the Oscar Elton Sette. I was in my bed at home on Kaua‘i, my husband beside me, one dog competing for space at my feet, and the other nestled in her bed on the floor.
My 28-day voyage with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program came to an end on Friday, October 2nd after we’d made the 1,500-mile return journey from Kure Atoll to Ke Kai Ola, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital located at Kailua-Kona on Hawai‘i (Big) Island.
In the waters off Kona, we gathered for our usual small boat meeting prior to shuttling monk seals to shore. The NOAA crew uses the GAR model of risk assessment before every operation, assigning a number from zero to 10 across six categories.
“We have seals on board that don’t have a lot of small boat experience, so I’m going to go with a four,” our Operations Officer said when it came to the category of mission complexity. Jared was often smiling, but he also wasn’t joking. “The most complex part of today’s mission is getting seals off the Sette and onto the SE4 safely.”
Two nights before, as we traversed the Kaulakahi channel between Kaua‘i and Ni`ihau, a large wave sideswiped the ship, frying a sensor that triggered a fire alarm at 1:00 a.m. And just like in drills, we mustered on the Texas deck. But, this morning, the winds and seas off Kona were light. Our total risk assessment added up to 23, falling into the green category, the lowest of the voyage.
Like every team on which I’ve played throughout my life, we capped the end of our meeting with a cheer. “Go, team.”
In the background, Neva called, “bwah,” and `Ena`ena made what I can only describe as the same noise my brothers liked to torment me with when we were kids—armpit farts. Seriously. In the weeks living with monk seals, I’ve learned a few new sounds they make, like the throat gurgling “whup” and chattering of teeth to go with the more typical sneezes, belches, and “gah” vocalizations. And armpit farts.
Captained by Mills and crewed by Chief Sci Jessie, the offload of seals took three runs. Neva went first. Then, `Ena`ena and Mahina. Lastly, Mo`o.
Some of you keen readers may be wondering about Ama`ama and Puka and scratching your heads about Mahina and Mo`o. In the tag-team world of underweight monk seals hitching rides aboard the Sette, Ama`ama and Puka scored an early departure off the ship—aboard a jet out of Midway—and they were already settled in at Ke Kai Ola, along with little Kilo from Ni`ihau. The last two, Mahina and Mo`o, were collected on our return when we picked up the French Frigate Shoals field team.
If you’re good with mathematical story problems, you’ve already figured out that seven underweight Hawaiian monk seals will be rehabilitated at Ke Kai Ola over the winter.
Before the existence of the monk seal hospital, run by the Marine Mammal Center of California, these seven monk seals would have faced grave odds in the wild. While the rate of overall population decline is decreasing, the greatest threat to the species’ occurs within the first three years of a seal’s life. Historically, one in five pups in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands survive to adulthood. In competition for food resources among apex predators, the key is size. If monk seals reach the size of healthy three-year-olds, their chance of survival jumps to 70%. So, that’s where the medical rehabilitation center of Ke Kai Ola comes in. Young, underweight seals are removed from the wild, fattened up in rehabilitation, and, then, returned to the wild. Like Pearl and Hermes.
Speaking of food, our chief steward, Clementine, may have saved her best recipes for our last night on board, dishing up kalua pork, pork luau, grilled chicken, and grilled turkey tails for the meat eaters; king crab for the seafood lovers; and wild rice, avocado salad, corn on the cob, wild rice, macaroni salad, watermelon, and paniolo cornbread for the vegetarians.
As overused as the cliché may be, when it comes to the galley, Clem runs a tight ship. On my first day aboard, when I reached for a plate at the buffet line, Clem called, “Wash your hands.” And when I followed the counter-clockwise instructions on entering the galley to scrape and rinse my plate, I could feel her eyes investigating what scraps I’d left uneaten. I felt the same guilt from childhood dinners when I didn’t clean my plate as instructed. By the end of the voyage, however, instead of calling out, “Wash your hands” when I entered the galley, Clem was saying, “Ray, get the veggie eggs benedict.” Or veggie quesadilla. Or veggie pizza. But it wasn’t just me. Clem catered to everyone’s diet. As the weeks went on, I noticed the menu board got more descriptive. For those with lactose intolerance, “no butter” or “non-dairy” would be added to the Apple pancakes or chicken potpie.
So, when Clem requested a local newspaper while we were shuttling seals in and out of the harbor at Kona, our small boat crew of Mills, Jessie, and me complied. And when the first harbor store turned up zero newspapers, we tried another. With every stop, Mills radioed the ship to let them know our whereabouts. But when our shopping errands seemed to take too long, the ship inquired as to just what the heck we were doing. Because technically, shopping was not part of our day’s mission.
“Picking up a local newspaper per Clem’s request,” Mills answered.
There may be a CO and XO—commanding officer and executive officer—aboard the ship, but everyone knows it’s really Clem who runs the ship. So, after a brief pause, the answer to the above transmission went something like, “Roger that. Carry on.”
Within hours of our return to the ship—newspaper safely delivered to Clem—it was time to dance again. A text from Ke Kai Ola reported: All four newly deposited monk seals at Ke Kai Ola were already eating fish.
Motoring to Honolulu, our disembarkation point, that night, it was quiet on the fantail of the ship without the monk seals. As one group of scientists and crew played poker in the galley and another group watched L.A. Confidential in the movie room, I spent a moment by myself among the now empty transport carriers that had housed some monk seals for what I hope will be a brief moment in their long lives.
I had boarded the Sette with one question weighing on my mind: What does it matter if the Hawaiian monk seal goes extinct?
As a volunteer with the program, providing educational outreach to people on the beach, I am often asked that question—sometimes by children, sometimes by fishermen, sometimes by visitors. I was hoping to come up with a thoughtful answer during my time on the ship after conversations with the people closest to the species. Surely, after speaking with a few scientists, I could come up with an intelligent answer. One that would embolden children and adults, advocates and adversaries, and residents and visitors alike to agree that saving the Hawaiian monk seal was important.
But did I?
Standing on the fantail of the Sette, gazing at the stars above, thinking there could be a celestial body in the night sky above that was around when the first monk seal swam across the then watery passageway from the Caribbean to Pacific Ocean, I concluded what matters is this: People working together to help someone or something in need. For 28 days, I watched a group of people come together to serve something other than their own personal wellbeing, and it was an awesome thing. An empowering experience. I hope to spend the rest of my life surrounded by these kinds of people in these kinds of efforts.
Now, if only this vertigo would go away.