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This special hospital has very special patients: Hawaii’s endangered monk seals

Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 4:21 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 28, 2021 at 4:42 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - On the west side of the Big Island, a special hospital operates with one main goal ― take care of an endangered species.

“We are the only hospital permitted in all of the main Hawaiian islands to be able to care for monk seals,” said Sophie Whoriskey, the hospital’s conservation veterinarian.

The facility is called Ke Kai Ola. In Hawaiian it means “the healing sea.”

The Marine Mammal Center in California opened it in 2014 to take care of severely malnourished and sick or injured Hawaiian monk seals.

“They often have parasites, intestinal parasites, that are competing with any of the nutrients that they are able to get,” Whoriskey said.

Most of the seals needing care come from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Their stay can be up to eight months.

The before and after comparisons are startling. Undersized seals fed a diet of restaurant quality fish reach their appropriate weight, and sick seals are nursed back to health.

Since it opened in 2014, 36 monk seals have been treated at the hospital and returned to the wild. The most recent is Eleu.

“We just released her a couple of weeks ago, healthy and happy. She’s gone back to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where she hopefully will flourish and make lots of monk seal pups in the future,” Whoriskey said.

The hospital also has an educational component. Calls to the NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline at 1-888-256-9840 are answered by Ke Kai Ola’s response coordinator Lauren Van Heukelem and other response specialists.

She advises that if you spot a monk seal on the beach, keep your pets away from it and look at it using the rule of thumb.

“Put your thumb out to the side. If it covers the seal, you’re about 50 feet away, which is the recommended distance to be from a Hawaiian monk seal,” she said.

Seals that are treated at the hospital are named by a Hawaiian cultural adviser. The animals are housed in pools where they’re monitored through live video feeds to keep human contact to a minimum.

“It’s just a very quick into a pen if we need to provide food, and then we step out and away so they’re not interacting with us and getting used to our presence,” Whoriskey said.

Ke Kai Ola works closely with NOAA Fisheries and the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. Hospital stays for seals that come from Papahanaumokuakea can be up to eight months.

Whoriskey said every case is different and offers an opportunity to learn.

“We had an adult female that came in just last year who had a type of bacteria that caused her to have an abortion. We hadn’t seen that before in a monk seal,” she said.

There are about 1,400 monk seals in the Hawaiian archipelago. Ke Kai Ola is working to keep them healthy.

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