Malama Monk Seal Voyage #10: Kure

Her name was “New Girl” for a while.

My two-hour seal watch started just after midnight. The sky was clear, half of it dedicated to a waxing moon that drowned out stars, the other half riddled with sparkly constellations that sent stars streaking across the sky.

We were hopeful New Girl would be the balm Neva needed to quiet down. But not even another monk seal weaner could keep Neva from vocalizing. Plain and simple, Neva (from Lisianski) is mouthy. As I sat on watch and listened to Neva, I began to think that she even talks in her sleep. But this post isn’t about Neva. It’s about New Girl.

We picked up our fifth underweight Hawaiian monk seal weaner at Kure Atoll.

Kure Atoll: Beyond here there be seamounts.

Kure Atoll Sign
Kure Atoll Sign

At 29 degrees latitude, Kure grabs honors as not only the northernmost coral atoll in the Hawaiian Island chain, but also as the northernmost coral atoll in the world.

As the earth’s tectonic plates move, Kure will migrate even further north, entering cooler water temperatures that will halt the growth of coral. At the same time, the remains of the only coral island in the atoll, Green, will continue subsiding until, eventually, the whole kit and caboodle—island and reef—will slip beneath the sea and complete the lifecycle of an oceanic, volcanic island, joining a collection of underwater seamounts that run beyond Kure to the Aleutian trench.

But we’re not there yet.

The oval-shaped reef at Kure measures six miles in circumference with a single break that’s best seen when surf breaks over the reef, icing it in white. The day we arrived at Kure, we woke to squally weather and a good-sized swell. The latter turned out to be perfect for navigating the route to shore. As our coxswain, Ray, lined up the opening in the reef with the one tall tree that grows on Green Island, I looked back at the ship. It was framed in a double rainbow. “C’mon,” I thought. “We need a triple.”

Earlier, the crewman who runs the ship’s store—and happens to be the ship doctor—had promised a 50% off sale in the event of a triple rainbow. Speaking of Doc, he also likes to cook, making a mean pho one night, crepes another night, and doughnuts stuffed with custard pudding and drizzled with chocolate another. Some days, we’d return from surveying seals on various islands, climb up the Jacob’s ladder, and Doc would pop out of the wet lab with a pitcher in hand. “Smoothie. Kim, do you want a smoothie?” I would still be wearing my hardhat and PFD. “You bet, I do,” I said every time.

We landed at Green Island—no triple rainbow, no ship’s store sale. Drats.

Our objectives for our day at Kure were straightforward: Pick up our seal team—Ilana and Lauri—and all their gear from their summer camp. As well, we’d drop off the nine extra passengers that had boarded at Midway, 60 miles south.

For the past 23 years, teams of volunteers and technicians from the state of Hawaii have worked to restore Kure’s habitats—clearing non-native plants, eradicating rats, removing big-headed ants, reintroducing native plants, and hauling marine debris off reefs and beaches. The teams work in six-month deployments. We dropped off the winter crew. They were replacing a summer crew of equal numbers. We would help with the camp switch. No small effort. The incoming team arrived with hundreds of five-gallon buckets of food and personal items, a new stove, lengths of 2 x 4 pieces of wood to re-build something in their camp, fresh water to last them six months, and several “guzzlers” to recreate wetlands for the recently introduced Laysan duck. Among a ton of other things that probably did weigh a ton.

It was a long, hot day of standing in a bucket brigade, transferring gear off the ship and onto the two small boats used as shuttles and, then, offloading all of it again off the small boat and onto the island. From the beach, the gear was hauled in wheelbarrows to camp at the center of the island.

We reserved one of the last boat rides back to the ship for New Girl. Our coxswain was Mills this time. He radioed ahead to let the ship know we were en route. “We’re carrying five scientists and one feisty seal,” Mills reported.

Communications over the radio when we’re running small boats veers to the necessary and practical. This NOAA Corps crew takes safety quite seriously. But Ensign Blair cracked for a second when he confirmed Mills’ radio transmission. “Copy that,” Blair said. “Five scientists and one feisty seal. We like ‘em feisty.”

Eventually, our feisty New Girl was named Ena`ena, after a native herb that grows four to 25 inches tall with moderately to densely hairy leaves in colors from olive green to white. It was once thought to be extinct on Kure but was recently rediscovered.

As another star flew across the night sky during my seal watch, I thought the name made perfect sense. Ena`ena The Monk Seal had little to no chance of surviving through the winter at Kure. She didn’t have enough fat reserves to give her the grace period necessary to learn how to forage for food and evade predators. Our `Ena`ena may not be a plant, but she is now headed to rehab at Ke Kai Ola, and like the plant will, hopefully, make a strong comeback. Actually, I hope `Ena`ena is a sign of things to come for the species as a whole.

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