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Nature and Science

Saving Hawaiian Monk Seals

I have never been to Hawaii. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I went when I was 4 with my family. I remember sitting on the beach and playing in the sand. I can’t tell you which beach or which island… it may as well have been Any Beach, USA. I’ve decided this visit doesn’t count.


Though I have never experienced Hawaii, I have always been fascinated by the islands. Specifically, I have always been interested in the Hawaiian monk seal. You see, I have my master’s degree in marine biology and I study seal diet. I had grand plans to study the Hawaiian Monk seal in graduate schoolbut unfortunately, it never came to fruition. I ended up studying the diet of Greyseals, off the coast of Maine. However, I now have an opportunity to go to Hawaii and study the Hawaiian monk seal. But, first, do you know why they are so important?

With a population of around 1,100 animals, the Hawaiian monk seal is the most endangered pinniped (seal/sea lion) in the U.S. and one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. There were two other species of monk seals, the Caribbean monk seal, which has been declared extinct, and the Mediterranean monk seal — considered the most endangered pinniped in the world with a population of  less than 600 remaining. With only around 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals left and the population decreasing at 4% a year, this charismatic and important marine mammal may not survive much longer.

The monk seal, hunted by humans to near extinction in the 1800’s, has struggled to rebound. The majority of the seals live in the North West Hawaiian Islands, mainly between French Frigate Shoals and Midway Island. The monk seal has been fully protected for the past few decades; their primary habitat in the North West Hawaiian Islands has been protected for several years. NOAA has permanent research stations dedicated to studying this species and partners with many other organizations such as the University of Hawaii and The Marine Mammal Center.

Sadly, the monk seal is still not recovering. It is thought that the main reason for this lack of recovery is that most monk seal pups are dying of starvation. They have a less than 1 in 5 chance of making it to adulthood. This is probably due a shift in the availability of food and to competition for fish resources from other seals and other species such as sharks. If a monk seal pup can make it past the first few years of life he has a much better chance at surviving. But many young pups can’t seem to compete well enough to get the fish, cephalopods and invertebrates they need.

There is some good news. There is one small group of monk seals in the Main Hawaiian Islands whose population is increasing. What we need to do is to fully understand the biology and ecology of this small population so we can better monitor its growth. This increased understanding will be used to develop effective strategies to allow seals and humans to coexist in the Main Hawaiian Islands. The foraging ecology of these animals is a critical component to understanding the prey and habitat needed by the only growing population of Hawaiian monk seals.

I study seal diet. For this opportunity, in partnership with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii at Manoa and NOAA, we will use the latest technology in the field of marine mammal dietary studies to try and determine what the Main Hawaiian Island monk seal population is eating. We will collect seal scat (poop), a non-invasive sample collection method that causes minimal disturbance to the animals. (Yup, that’s right. I study seal poop. Don’t judge.)

In researching seal diet, we look for fish bones in the seal scat to see what the seals are eating. Sometimes certain fish species do not show up in the scat because their bones are so fragile. I will bring the scat samples back to the lab and analyze the them for prey item DNA. This method will give us more sensitive data on monk seal diet than we have been able to obtain in the past, thus giving us more insight into the diet of the Hawaiian monk seal in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Understanding the diet of marine mammals is tough to do since foraging is difficult to observe, so any information we can gain about this subject matter is valuable and will contribute to the conservation of the species.

Monk seals have been called “living fossils” because they are considered to be on the order of 14-16 million years old. We certainly don’t want to watch them become extinct! We hope that gaining insight into the diet of the small increasing Main Hawaiian Islands monk seal population will help us understand this species better and help to conserve a highly endangered species, before it is too late.

Help Dash go to Hawaii! The expedition is funded by the National Geographic Channel, but she needs to win a place from a program called Expedition Granted. To learn more, go to Expedition Granted and VOTE FOR DASH. To learn more about Dash, check out her blog.

Fern Grotto? Not so Ferny.

Wailua River

Wailua River by fadedpictures on Flickr (Creative Commons)

In the midst of fern grotto Mother Nature made her home…” — Beautiful Kauai

It takes a little less than an hour to arrive at Fern Grotto via Smith’s fern grotto river cruise. The destination is a place of legend and somewhat kitschy romance. This natural amphitheater was once a popular location for weddings, and the acoustics are still quite impressive, but sadly, the ferns are sorely lacking. While I wasn’t disappointed with the hospitality or charm of the staffers on the boat trip, the grotto itself is… well, it’s a little tired.

I thought of this the other day when I stumbled across a picture postcard sent from Hawaii in the early 70s. The grotto was lush and green, aloha shirted men lined the walkways accompanied by ladies dressed in matching muumuus. The walls were draped with greenery, water dripped from the reddish rock. It was exactly the kind of place Mother Nature might make her home, a cool refuge from the Hawaiian sunshine.

Sadly, the site was afflicted by drought and most of the reviews are accurate, if unhelpful, in their “you should have seen it 20 years ago” assessment of the site. It’s still fun to take the boat and be suckered into the somewhat uninteresting marketing point of this being “Hawaii’s only river” because really, who doesn’t like a leisurely ride on the water?

For the less lazy, one of the many kayak rental places will set you up and you can paddle your own way, taking as long as you like to travel the two mile stretch. But make it about the journey, not the destination.

As for the song Beautiful Kauai,  it was written in 1967 by Randy Farden — surely fern grotto was bursting with plant life in ’67.  Don Ho made the tune famous — his classic lounge version of it is here.

Plastic Heartache

October / Octubre from Rafa Herrero on Vimeo.

This isn’t Hawaii specific, but this footage of sea turtles and plastic floating in the ocean should help you remember to pack a reusable grocery bag and to say NO to plastic at the ABC Store, the Whaler’s General Store, the myriad of convenience stores dotting the tourist focused communities around the islands. It’s just heartbreaking.

Hat tip to Sebastian Tobler on Uptake.

Your Guide to the Volcano

Warren Costa packs a damn fine picnic. Big sandwiches bursting with fillings, the perfect pineapple, and those One Ton chips that I can’t seem to find on the mainland. That’s not, in itself, a good enough reason to take a volcano tour. Nor is the opportunity to gawk at Warren’s spectacular tattoos, though I don’t know when I’ve seen finer work.  Those are some nice extra benefits, but really, the reason you want to visit Volcano National Park is because Warren, the man behind Native Guide Hawaii, knows the park like, well, forgive the cliche, the back of his hand.

Warren says that he grew up with the park as his playground, he’s FBI, after all — From (the) Big Island. But also, he worked in the park for many years as a natural resources manager, building fences, removing invasive plants and seeding native species. He also worked as an archeologist, doing field surveys and mapping. All those years off the trail and in the back corners of the more than 200, 000 acres of park mean he knows where the cool stuff is — the vertical lava tubes left behind when floes wrapped around tree trunks, the spatter ramparts, and more. He knows the names of the plants and the birds and where to find them. Led by Warren, you’ll wander off the road, off the trail, and while you might not know where, exactly you are — or how to get back to the car — all those years in the park means he knows exactly where the minivan is.


Halemaumau Vent

Last spring, I spent a day exploring with a small group of visitors and Warren. During that time we stood in complete darkness in the under-visited part of the Thurston Lava Tube, learned about the difference between various kinds of trees, looked for but did not see honey creepers, petted giant hairy ferns and little red lehua blossoms, and stood watching the steam and gas stream in to the sky out of the Halemaumau volcano vent. Warren answered all of our questions with patience and good humor all day long, and hey, did I mention he packs a damn fine picnic?

Sure, you can take the ranger led hikes in the park — and really, you should. The park service does a great job of introducing you to the geology and natural history of the region. But if you want to slow it down and see the park from a  local perspective, planning a trip with Native Guide Hawaii can deepen your understand and appreciation for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and for Hawaii.

105 Jellyfish

Baby Box Jelly Fish via VannaGocaraRupa on Flickr

Baby Box Jelly Fish via VannaGocaraRupa on Flickr

Oahu lifeguards spotted slightly more than 100 box jellyfish today as the monthly influx has dropped off considerably. — Honolulu Advertiser

What’s with the jelly count? Once a month — maybe eight to twelve days after a full month — box jellies come close to the beaches to spawn. They’re so predictable that there’s an online calendar; obsessive types could plan their trip to Hawaii around the jellyfish.

Hawaii’s box jellies are unique in their predictable arrivals: they come near shore to spawn 8 to 12 days after each full moon. John Culliney, Professor of Biology at Hawaii Pacific University, said that other members of the same phylum, including corals, also time their spawns based on the lunar cycle.

“They do this because it’s easier to concentrate the eggs and sperm all together,” Culliney said. What is unique about C. alata is that nowhere else in the world are box jellyfish quite so reliably on-time. No one is yet able to answer why. —The Blob That Attacked Waikiki: The Box Jellyfish Invasion of Hawaii

Box jellies are poisonous and apparently, the sting hurts like hell. You don’t want your vacation wrecked by this:

Stings are not often fatal, but can hurt a great deal and may lead to an allergic reaction. Symptoms can include: mild burning, redness to severe blisters and welts. If you contact a Man of War, try to immediately take out the tentacles with anything but your bare hands and teeth. Rinse with fresh or salt water but do not use vinegar. Some people will say to do this, but it often makes stings worse. If symptoms are more than mildly uncomfortable, contact a physician. — Garden Isle

It’s common sense, of course, but if the jellyfish warning signs are out, that’s the day you head for the aquarium or the museum. That’s the day you take a nap or go find the best shrimp truck on the North Shore or go shopping for an ‘ukulele. The weird translucent creatures aren’t going to stick around — let them have the shallows for a few days. Always, always, always, check the beach signs and if you’re not sure, ask a lifeguard.

Beaches in Hawaii are closed from time to time for a variety of reasons — dangerously high tides, shark sightings, and box jellies being among them. Take a minute to remember that you’re standing on a tiny island in the middle of Pacific — and give nature a little respect. It’s all for your safety.

Dolphins: Harrassed, Endangered, Totally Appealling


Sea Party by Juvetson via Flickr

A small population of dolphins that live near Hawaii and resemble killer whales could be placed on the endangered species list, a federal agency said yesterday. Such an action could affect Hawaii-based longline fishing boats, which have accidentally snagged the dolphins — called false killer whales — in the past. — Hawaii Star Bulletin

It’s fairly common to see spinner dolphins messing around in the surf when you go out on the snorkel tours in the islands, the black dolphin or false killer whale — so called because they look vaguely like orcas — is less common and now, we know why.

The fishery is accidentally killing or seriously injuring an average of 7.4 false killer whales each year in waters off Hawaii, the National Marine Fisheries Service said in a Federal Register notice. That exceeds the 2.5 per year that the population can lose without hurting its ability to sustain itself. — The Maui News

Spinners aren’t endangered, but they’ve got their own worries. Operators will take you out to swim with them in their waters and not everyone thinks this is a great idea, it can be super stressful on the dolphin population. There’s criticism on the Wild Dolphin Foundation’s website — they recommend you participate in a Dolphin Smart tour, which you can learn more about  here. Places like Sea Life Park and the Hilton Waikaloa Village have swim with the dolphins “experiences” where you’ll climb in to a pool, but  these contained adventures have their critics too. If you want to learn more about Hawaii’s dolphins, there’s the Dolphin Institute — they have lots of educational programs but not much for folks who are just passing through the islands on a visit.

There’s no denying that it’s a magical thing to see dolphins skipping around in the open ocean. I’d probably explode from excitement were I to participate in a dolphin encounter of any kind, be it in a tank or in the open water. And I know I’d walk away feeling a lot better about the whole thing if the adventure were approved by a conservation organization. Sail Hawaii works with the Wild Dolphin Foundation and that seems like a good thing.

My advice?  Ask your tour provider whether they partner with conversation efforts before booking a trip. If you want to see dolphins — and really, who doesn’t — why not make sure the company that’s showing them to you has their best interests in mind?

Talking Trash and Going Green

Plastic debris on the beach at Kahoolawe by US Ocean Gov via Flickr

Plastic debris on the beach at Kaho'olawe by US Ocean Gov via Flickr

I’ve been following, with some interest, the news about Hawaii’s efforts to manage their garbage issues. They’re making more trash than they can process and, in an effort to deal with the problem, had planned to ship it to my back yard. The garbage would be bundled into three ton bales, loaded on ships, and sent to a processing facility on the Columbia River in Washington.

“It’s a Band-Aid on a bullet hole,” said John Guinan of the Trash Man Hawaii, a garbage hauling company. “But we don’t really have much of an alternative at this point.” At the same time, he warned: “I guess it’s a good idea until the barge tips over and we’ll have a massive spill in the South Pacific.” —USA Today

The deal stalled early last week due to … well, it’s confusing and sounds like politics, more than anything. There are votes for extensions to keep the landfill open, talk of pressure from resort properties, a weird sideline about who paid for the scale, and still, the garbage piles up.

As visitors to Hawaii, there’s no denying that we’re part of the problem. The hotels I stayed in on my last trip did not have clear options for recycling and I ended up leaving big piles of paper (brochures, newspapers, tourist propaganda) on coffee tables across the islands. Some of the places we stayed provided disposable coffee cups instead of reusable ones, throwaway plastic water bottles were ubiquitous, and on the streets of Waikiki, it seemed that every third tourist was carrying a plastic bag from the ABC store.

Hawaii’s Ecotourism Association (HEA) has a list of best practices for visitors to the islands, including the no-brainer-yet-always-forgotten idea of bringing a cloth shopping bag and a reusable water bottle. A search turned up no LEED certified (essentially, built green)  hotels in the islands, though the Aqua chain is a member of the HEA and they’ve stated that their goal is to get a LEED certified property.  (For the record, I’m a fan, I like any place with free wifi and a nod towards kitchen facilities in your room.)

I’m not a perfect traveler. I like the little bottles of product, though I found that I did not mind getting my shampoo from a shower mounted dispenser if it was clean. I do typically carry a backpack so it’s easy to pass on the plastic bag, though I like to have one or two for a wet swimsuit or a dirty pair of shoes. It’s not a hassle for me to sort my trash or refill my water bottle, I’m happy to do so.

But on the downside, I have been deeply disappointed by the lack of rental car options — why can I not get a Smart Car or a hybrid? I’ve found public transit, which I actually like to take, is sorely lacking outside of Honolulu, I was deeply frustrated at the Maui airport by how hard it was to get to Lahaina using public transit, it might have been easier to hitchhike. (If I feel that way, and I’m just a visitor, transit must be especially maddening for residents.)

My efforts to keep my footprint small are probably totally negated by the fact that I have to fly to get to Hawaii, but the idea that a plastic bottle that I throw away in Waikiki will follow me home … it kind of makes it my problem, doesn’t it?

Connected Oceans and the Tsunami Watch

Tsunami watch sign by hansol on Flickr

Tsunami watch sign by hansol on Flickr

On September 29, 2009, the state of Hawaii was on tsunami watch. The waves — which hit Samoa, taking lives and destroying property — were caused by a 8.0 earthquake about 120 miles south of Samoa and American Samoa. First things first — the Red Cross of New Zealand has a special appeal for help to the tsunami victims; please give here.

It’s 2600 miles from Samoa to Hawaii. The mind boggles to think of that big sheet of water, shaken from the earth’s movement, affecting the Hawaiian islands so far away. It’s sort of terrifying to think of the hotel lined beaches, the crowds of blissful tourists going about their routine tanning, unaware of the folding and approaching ocean. It’s terrifying to think of Hilo, on the south side of the Big Island — in 1960, an earthquake off the coast of South America caused a tsunami that destroyed the ramshackle little downtown. 1960 — there are still people alive who lived through the 1960 tsunami, how awful it must have been for them to hear the news.

The Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo captures the stories of Hawaii’s tsunami survivors and educates visitors in tsunami safety. It’s a little place and it seems woefully underfunded given the important work they do. If you want to freak yourself out, you can click through the center’s site to the tsunami zone map for Waikiki and consider how likely it is that your Oahu hotel is right in the heart of that zone. To understand what a tsunami is, exactly, read this description.

A tsunami watch is just that — a watch — so if you find yourself on Hawaii’s beaches and learn that a watch is in place, there’s no need to panic. Do stay informed. This particular watch was canceled, meaning there’s no risk the islands will be hit, but according to this  Star Bulletin article, safety minded officials are saying beach goers should stay out of the water.

Because of possible strong currents and unusual wave action, state and county officials will be going to beaches to warn swimmers to stay out of the water between 12:30 p.m. and 7;30 p.m. Civil defense officials reversed an initial decision to close beach parks this afternoon and evening.

“We are asking for the kokua of all of our residents and visitors to keep out of the water and away from the beaches and river mouths,” Mayor Mufi Hannemann said. “These precautionary measures are being implemented to keep everyone safe.”

New Coral and Baby Fish

Image by Gore Fiendus (Jerry Frausto) via Flickr

Copperband Butterfly Fish on Blue by Gore Fiendus (Jerry Frausto) via Flickr

The mere idea of a junior butterfly fish (my first favorite fish of all time) makes me, okay, squeaky with the curse of cuteness. Come on, a tiny butterfly fish? Preferably the kind with the super long white snout? That, that, my friends, is a darned cute fish. Apparently, the little guys are interspersed with junior parrot fish out in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. That’s a place I’ll never get to, seeing as how you have to go by boat and seeing as how this Hawaii-lover gets seasick looking at boats. But hey, hardy scientist types head out that way under the auspices of research and they send back happy news of baby fish and never before seen corals.

“The coral reef habitat goes four times deeper than where we’ve been working prior to this,” Kosaki told reporters.

Kosaki’s team, which returned to Oahu on Sunday, used new technology that allows divers to descend deeper than was possible just a few years ago. For example, the juvenile fish nursery was spotted among algae 170 feet deep.

Brian Bowen, a research professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said scientists would need to study whether nurseries like these replenish fish populations in shallow reefs. Answering this question will help those managing coral reefs, he said.

“If you’re dumping trash at 170 feet of water, you might be dumping it on the nursery grounds that keep your fishery going,” Bowen said.

Ahem. No dumping trash on my cute junior fish, okay?

There are more details about the recent findings at Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (say that out loud, three times, fast) on this article from the AP. There are also not enough photos, so if you have time, watch this amazing slideshow/movie so you can see what you’re missing.