After eight months of rehabilitation at Ke Kai Ola, a Hawaiian monk seal hospital, seven young seals are strong enough to return to their ocean home.
It’s been just a week since the release of the first of the seven Hawaiian monk seals — Kilo — was released back into the wild, and she’s already been spotted twice by researchers on nearby beaches. Both times she was spotted playing in the shallow waters near shore with sea cucumber guts on her face, indicating that she had been exploring the area closely enough to scare the small invertebrates into expelling their insides in defense.
While this is typical behavior for a young Hawaiian monk seal, it’s cause for celebration in Kilo’s case. Just eight months ago, she was near death — orphaned and starving on the privately owned island on Ni’ihau, southwest of Kauai, until she was rescued and brought to Ke Kai Ola for rehabilitation — their first patient from the Main Hawaiian Islands.
Kilo is the smallest pup admitted to Ke Kai Ola since it opened in 2014 to care for critically endangered monk seals. When Kilo arrived on September 8, she weighed just 37 pounds, which is close to birth weight for a Hawaiian monk seal and just a quarter of what she should have weighed at her estimated age of 3 to 5 weeks old.
Once in rehabilitation, it took Kilo several months to transition from being fed a mashed-up fish formula to being able to eat fish on her own. But after seven months, Kilo gained more than 100 pounds and was able to show animal care experts that she was strong and feisty enough to compete for her own meals in the wild.
All seven were very lucky
Kilo is just one of seven female Hawaiian monk seals released last month after receiving special care. Most of these seals were pups when they arrived in later September. And all of them had diagnosis similar to Kilo’s — they were emaciated; dehydrated and unlikely to survive without help.
The six Hawaiian monk seals that joined Kilo also have another thing in common — they were all rescued in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a 1,200-mile archipelago of small islands and atolls that is home to about 900 of the remaining 1,100 monk seal surviving today. And that is also where they were returned to the wild last week, after a multi-day journey by boat.
After rehabilitating the Hawaiian monk seals, veterinary experts work closely with researchers to ensure that these seals return to a home in the Northwestern Islands where they can thrive. Each seal is fitted with a satellite tag before release so that they can continue to track their progress for several months.
In many cases, the seal patients are released on the same beaches where they were found — and their reactions once they arrive are a great reward for all of the hard work that goes into saving these critically endangered animals.
In Kilo’s case, according to researcher Dr. Michelle Barbieri, she “bolted out onto the sand, then rolled around and pushed her face and nose into the sand, all while vocalizing quite a bit! I can only imagine how wonderful it must feel for these seals to sleep on sand again!”
Meet the Lucky Seven: