Hurricane Walaka practically wiped an island off the map

‘No one expected East Island to disappear this quickly.’

Hurricane Walaka sinks island in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - When Walaka barreled over French Frigate Shoals as a major hurricane earlier this month, it wiped out tiny East Island, a gathering place for endangered species.

East Island is a critical habitat to a number of endangered species, including Hawaiian monk seals.
East Island is a critical habitat to a number of endangered species, including Hawaiian monk seals. (Source: NOAA)

“It’s a crucial habitat for Hawaiian monk seals, for the Hawaiian green sea turtle, for albatross and other incredible animals,” said Chip Fletcher, of the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

“You can imagine storm surge and high waves running right across it."

The monster storm, which was one of the most intense hurricanes in the Pacific ever recorded, washed away nearly all 11 acres of the tiny island.

"No one expected East Island to disappear this quickly," Fletcher said.

About half of Hawaiian green sea turtles nested on the island, and many Hawaiian monk seals in French Frigate Shoals had their pups there.

Where they will go now is a mystery.

“All the islands at French Frigate Shoals were probably over-washed with a huge storm surge,” said Charles Littnan of NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.

Scientists believe most of the turtles and monk seals left East Island before Walaka hit.

Athline Clark, superintendent of Papahanaumokuakea National Monument, said there's not a lot of emergent land in that area of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

"Each little islet is an important habitat in and of itself," she said.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to continue to manage through that and be resilient,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Kate Toniolo said.

And there is a hopeful sign.

New aerial photographs show sections of East Island have re-surfaced. One photo showed about a dozen monk seals on a strip of sand.

“So already they’re coming back to this, just showing how important this habitat is,” Fletcher said.

"The question that we're going to be looking at is how quickly and how readily they respond," Littnan said.

The full extent of Walaka’s damage won’t be known until scientists survey French Frigate Shoals sometime next year.

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