Thanks, Kermit

March 9th, 2014
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Kermit the monk seal with National Geographic crittercam mounted on his back at White Plain Beach in February 2014. Photo courtesy Barbara Billand, Monk Seal Foundation volunteer.

Kermit the monk seal with National Geographic crittercam mounted on his back. Photo courtesy Barbara Billand, Monk Seal Foundation volunteer.

First of all, let's say thanks to Kermit the monk seal for giving us a peek into his under-ocean life.

Kermit, an approximately 20-year-old male monk seal who hangs out on the leeward side of Oahu, is part of a three-year National Geographic crittercam project conducted by NOAA Fisheries. The camera was mounted on his back between Feb. 7 and 14.

Students in Castle High School teacher Dani Padilla's marine science class got to get the first peek at footage gathered from Kermit's crittercam in February. You can get a peek, too, via this link courtesy National Geographic and NOAA Fisheries.

While five groups (of about four students each) watched 30-minute video clips, the project will gather more than 200 hours of footage to pore through (swimming, sleeping, playing, eating). The students are enlisted to help scientists put together a short video to present to the community as well as to be the future voice of monk seals.

It's a great idea — taking science out of its "scientific research bubble" and out into the community.

"I think the main takeaway for my students was the first hand experience watching un-touched footage," wrote teacher Dani Padilla in an e-mail. "They got to DO rather than be told. They were not just having the 'facts' fed to them through the grapevine. Instead, they were the ones collecting the data and watching a monk seal pass up hundreds of fish before he decided to eat anything...."

FTR MONK SEAL IN CLASSROOM 19

Castle High School teacher Dani Padilla with students as they examine footage taken from the National Geographic crittercam mounted on Kermit the monk seal's back. Photo by Craig Kojima.

Only about 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals, known as ilioholoikauaua (dog running in the rough seas in Hawaiian) remain in the isles today, with their population in decline. They are a native species found only in Hawaii, and protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. The state of Hawaii considers the intentional harm or killing of a seal a third-degree felony.

Now, back to Kermit. You can't help loving Kermit when you see him. Monk Seal Foundation volunteer Barbara Billand, who provided the courtesy photo above, admits he's her favorite of the many monk seals she keeps tabs on. He's often found at White Plains Beach, snoozing in the sun.

"He's a very cool seal," she said. "Very laid  back, a gentleman."

Monk seals can live between 25 to 30 years, dive for an average of 6 minutes when feeding and eat a varied diet of fish, octopus, crabs, shrimp and lobster. They grow up to seven feet long and weigh 400 to 600 pounds. They can also travel long distances.

While the monk seals may not be keen about having these crittercams attached (who knows what they would say if they could?), NOAA scientist Charles Littnan said in a Feb. 12 FB post that the new technology will provide valuable data about their foraging behavior (more than satellite tags and scat analysis can offer) as well as their habitat. It also offers potential solutions for fisheries.

It can also help dispel myths about the critically endangered monk seals, one of them being that they consume a lot. First-hand footage can show, rather than just tell the community these facts. "I'm not trying to create love for the seals," said Littnan, "Just knowledge, with the facts."

Here's a great link to Hawaiian monk seal myths vs. facts.

If you're interested in learning more about Hawaii's monk seals or volunteering, check out the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program's Facebook Page. If you see a monk seal sleeping on shore, do not approach, touch or feed it. If you see one in distress, call 888-256-9840.

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