Part I: A hospital for Hawaiian monk seals

November 11th, 2013
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KP2, now known as Ho‘ailona, bounced around several locations in Hawaii before taking up residence at a Santa Cruz lab in California for two years. He is now a resident at the Waikiki Aquarium, where he serves as an ambassador for his species. Photo from marinemammalcenter.org.

KP2, now known as Ho‘ailona, bounced around several locations in Hawaii before taking up residence at a Santa Cruz lab in California for two years. He is now a resident at the Waikiki Aquarium, where he serves as an ambassador for his species. Photo from marinemammalcenter.org.

It's great to see a vision become reality — and maybe the tide is turning for our endangered Hawaiian monk seals.

The Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, Calif. (north of San Francisco) expects to open the first phase of its new, $3.2 million monk seal hospital at the National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii (NELHA) in Kona by the end of this year.

The center, which has been rescuing marine mammals since 1975, including mostly harbor seals, elephant seals and sea lions from the California coast, has taken a keen interest in helping the endangered Hawaiian monk seals across the Pacific.

"We believe it's the right thing to do to help animals in need," said Jeff Boehm, the center's executive director.

With a population below 1,100 in the Hawaiian isles, the monk seal population is declining at a rate of about 4 percent per year. In the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, juveniles are prone to starvation, marine debris entanglement and shark predators. In the main Hawaiian islands, where more monk seals are being sighted, they have become victim to human-created hazards including fish hooks, nets and motor boats.

This Hawaiian monk seal was rescued after it was found with a hook. NOAA-Permit-932-190523319.

This Hawaiian monk seal ingested a fishing hook last year. NOAA Permit 932-1905233319.

In 2011 and 2012, several Hawaiian monk seals on Molokai and Kauai were killed intentionally by humans, considered both a state and federal offense due to its endangered status.

The facility, to be called "Ke Kai Ola" (The Healing Sea), broke ground in September of last year and should have four pools to accommodate injured monk seals. The pools have already been filled with water, according to Boehm, and could take an injured adult or orphaned pup.

The center needs another $700,000 to complete the second phase, which would include the buildout of a fish kitchen and lab, plus offices and an open-air visitor pavilion. Plans also call for solar photovoltaic panels, seawater air conditioning and seawater filtration infrastructure for the pools.

To help run operations, the center recently received a $25,000 grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. Donations have come from throughout the globe, according to Boehm, with the Hawaiian monk seal capturing the heart of Bay Area philanthropists as well as schoolkids raising funds in their classrooms.

The Marine Mammal Center's mission is "to expand knowledge about marine mammals — their health and that of their ocean environment — and to inspire their global conservation."

Another component of the center's mission is expanding knowledge, which means partnering with scientists to help expand and advance scientific knowledge, as well as to educate the general public about marine mammals. In California, the center works with more than 1,000 volunteers and has successfully rehabilitated and released hundreds of animals back to the wild.

"We go down to the beaches and watch them move back into the Pacific Ocean," he said. "To be frank, there are tears, sometimes. It's a celebratory feeling."

Boehm says the center is looking forward to working with other non-profits, the community and schools in Hawaii.

"There are great partners in Hawaii doing work around the observations, monitoring and response to animals on the beach," said Boehm. "What there hasn't been is a dedicated place to take these animals."

Until now. Click here to learn more.

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