Scientists found a pair of juvenile monk seals who had been abandoned by their mother in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, earlier this year.
At just a few weeks old, the pups had been prematurely weaned and were malnourished. Scientists knew they faced certain death if left alone so they decided to bring the critically endangered pups to the Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital in Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Over the past three months, Pearl and Hermes (named for the atoll where they were found) have been nursed back to health. They have reportedly doubled their weight on a diet of herring and other fish -- Pearl weighing in at nearly 135 pounds and Hermes at 156 -- and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monk seal research team is now gearing up to re-release them in the wild later this month.
"It's pretty darn exciting," Deb Wickham, operations manager at the Ke Kai Ola, told The Huffington Post. "Each individual counts when you only have 1,100 animals," she added.
Found exclusively in the Hawaiian Archipelago, the Hawaiian monk seal is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world. The majority, about 900, reside in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The remaining 200 or so inhabit the main Hawaiian Islands.
Rachel Sprague, NOAA's Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that juvenile survival is one of the major challenges for seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
“For a long time our biologists have had to turn their back and walk away from a seal they knew was going to die," she told the newspaper. "Now they have a place to go.”
Ke Kai Ola, which means "the healing sea" in Hawaiian, was funded by the Marine Mammal Center of California. It opened it's doors last September and aims to "give monk seal pups a better shot at survival and adult seals a second chance when they need it."
On Tuesday, the $3.2 million facility welcomed its newest patient Kilo (meaning "sassy" in Hawaiian), a female pup that was found abandoned during a NOAA monk seal survey the day before on the privately owned island of Niihau.
NOAA and the Marine Mammal Center said in a release that Kilo -- the first seal from the Main Hawaiian Islands admitted to the new monk seal hospital, and the ninth seal overall -- would certainly have died without intervention.
"She's really emaciated," Wickham told HuffPost, adding that she could clearly see the pup's hips and backbone. "But she's still got some spunk to her."
Wickham added Kilo was already showing signs of improvement Wednesday, and that she's optimistic the "feisty" little pup will make a full recovery and return to the wild, likely in a few months.
Last month, in an effort to further protect Hawaiian monk seals, the federal government expanded critical habitat for the species by 7,000 square miles to include areas around Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Niihau and Big Island.
The Hawaiian monk seal is one of two remaining monk seal species. The Mediterranean monk seal is also critically endangered, with a population of about 500. The Caribbean monk seal is extinct, last seen in 1952.
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