I stood in the coffee aisle at Costco a few weeks ago with tears in my eyes. It wasn’t the price of coffee that made me cry. It was an email.
Ordinarily, I don’t read emails when I’m shopping, but I was on deadline for a story and waiting to hear from a source. That source—Dr. Michelle Barbieri who is the veterinarian with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program—just happened to be on a ship with limited Internet access that was plying the waters around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and I’d set up phone alerts for Michelle’s emails.
Michelle emailed to report that Kilo, an emaciated monk seal that we picked up last September when I was aboard the Oscar Elton Sette and had spent seven months in rehabilitation at Ke Kai Ola on Big Island, had been released back into the wild.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with eyes welling with tears that day. Although I may have been the only crying one in the coffee aisle of Costco.
Today is Endangered Species Day. And Kilo’s had another adventure in her young life. It was reported on the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s Facebook page today as such:
When seals are returned to the wild we usually keep them in shore pens for several days. This is to help them calm down after a long sea journey and acclimate to their “new” surroundings. In the past, some seals have swam out to see and become disoriented and unable to find their way back to land. Kilo was released at Laysan Island on April 27th and quickly moved from her pen to the ocean. Over the next couple of days the Laysan field team spotted Kilo swimming in the shallow water and usually following a larger seal. Back in Honolulu we were tracking her via satellite when we noticed her travel quite a distance west, into open-ocean where navigating could be difficult for an inexperienced seal. Over the next several days we watched her moving a little north, a little south until suddenly she swam straight for a submerged seamount. A seamount she could not have any idea existed. Then she swam to another small seamount moving ever westward. The directness of her movements lead us to believe that she was probably still following another seal. This is not uncommon and has been observed in Crittercam footage, we just always hope that the young seals follow other animals that will keep them nearer to the islands. But even with these suspicions we were worried for young Kilo. It is a very big ocean out there and she is a very small seal.
It is hard to express how excited we were when we checked the satellite map one morning and found that overnight Kilo had traveled about 20 miles from the Pioneer Seamount to Neva Shoals, the shallow area surrounding Lisianski Island. She was back in habitat that she could easily dive to the bottom in…and sleep. And she was only a couple of miles from dry land. She spent several days swimming around Neva Shoals getting tantalizingly close to land, but never hauling out. Then one day it was back to open ocean, moving further to the southwest. We grew worried again until, finally, she turned around and headed back into the shoals. Needless to say we were ecstatic when we received an email from the Lisianski team with a subject line of three little words: Kilo on Lisi!
It was a trip that spanned 2 weeks and over 140 miles. She has been onshore the last several days resting and we hope she plans on sticking around. We will keep you all posted.
Here’s a map that accompanied the Facebook post.
Watch for my upcoming story in Hawai‘i magazine about the good work of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program and Ke Kai Ola.