911 for the Life Aquatic: Hawai‘i’s Marine Mammal Response Network

For dolphins, whales or seals in bad situations, Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Response Network knows just what to do.


Nobody knows how a Northern fur seal wound up on abeach along the North Shore last summer, but there she was, weak, emaciated, wounded by a cookie cutter shark and very lost. Fur seals inhabit places with cold water, such as the Bering Sea. As far as anyone knows, this was the first one ever seen in Hawaii.


The people who discovered it, while out on a morning walk, thought it must be a baby Hawaiian monk seal, abandoned by its mother. They called the Hawaiian Monk Seal Response Network, a non-profit group that sends volunteers to keep curious beachgoers away from Hawaii’s native seals when they haul out onto Oahu beaches. The monk seal helpers quickly noticed that this seal stood on its four flippers, which monk seals do not do, and that it had visible ears, which monk seals do not have.


The monk seal volunteers weren’t prepared to deal with a fur seal, but they knew who to call: their partners at the Hawaii Marine Mammal Response Network.


The organization serves as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s go-to guy for marine mammals in bad situations. If you encounter a monk seal with a fish hook through its cheek, a humpback whale entangled in a gill net or a dead dolphin lying on the beach, this is who you want to call.


“We’re like the 911 for monk seals, dolphins and whales,” says the Marine Mammal Response Network’s coordinator, David Schofield.


Run by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and encompassing Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the broad-based network includes scientists, nongovernmental organizations, Hawaiian cultural practitioners and hundreds of volunteers, such as fishermen, tour-boat operators and the monk seal helpers. It also includes so many different governmental organizations that Schofield carries a three-page cheat sheet into meetings so he can keep all the acronyms straight.


Schofield is no stranger to odd ocean occurrences. He’s seen a humpback whale so entangled in marine debris it was anchored to the seafloor off Haleiwa like a yacht. He’s seen a dead killer whale on Kauai and a live elephant seal on Molokai—two cold-water species whose appearances in Hawaiian waters are extremely rare. Still, the sight of a Northern fur seal hauled out on the golden sand near Sunset Beach caught him by surprise. “My first thought was, ‘Man, what are you doing here?’” he says.


With the help of the monk seal volunteers and a few bystanders he deputized to assist, Schofield corralled the seal, shooed it into a cage and drove it by pickup truck to the Honolulu Zoo. There it received food, fluids and veterinary care for its wounds. But, more importantly, at least from the standpoint of NOAA’s wildlife managers, it was quarantined.


Fur seals may carry the morbillivirus, a disease to which Hawaii’s endangered native seals have not been exposed. A large part of the Marine Mammal Response Network’s mission entails protecting monk seals, so hustling the potentially disease ridden interloper off the beach was essential.


“The fear is that an epidemic could tear through the monk seal population and devastate the species,” Schofield says.



Death by the Ton

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA has responsibility for the conservation and management of Hawaii’s dolphins, whales and seals. This includes figuring out what to do with the dead ones stranded on or floating near shore, which is one of the Marine Mammal Response Network’s many functions.


There are plenty of ways to deal with a marine mammal carcass. It might be buried in place, hauled to a landfill or towed out to sea for the sharks to enjoy. On a remote shoreline it might be left alone entirely. Sometimes the network hands off the dirty work to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which has a grant from NOAA for just such occasions. Sometimes the Coast Guard lends a hand, applying the computer drift models it uses in searching for people lost at sea to determine how far offshore to tow a dead whale so it doesn’t wash back in.


David Schofield, left, the hands-on coordinator of Marine Mammal Response Network.


Once, when a whale carcass was found floating toward shore near a popular surf spot in Hilo, the Coast Guard tried to help by opening fire on it with an M-16, hoping to sink it by puncturing the lungs. That didn’t work, but, fortunately, the wind shifted and blew the whale offshore, taking the sharks it had attracted with it.


Occasionally, a deceased whale ends up in a spot where the only way to remove it is by hand. In one such case, a 1,200-pound pygmy sperm whale washed onto the rocks in front of rock star Neil Young’s house in Puako, a small oceanfront community on the Big Island. Justin Viezbicke, the Marine Mammal Response Network’s coordinator for West Hawaii, and a crew of volunteers hauled the remains through Young’s yard to a truck parked on the street, one bucketful at a time. “You just do that over and over until you get 1,200 pounds in the back of a truck,” Viezbicke says.


The preferences and sensitivities of the community where dead or dying marine mammals appear have to be taken into account when disposing of the remains, says Viezbicke. Some communities want to get rid of the remains as quickly as possible, while others want to pay their respects to the animal. When a dead whale washed ashore in the Big Island’s Kau district, residents wanted to, essentially, hold a funeral. Viezbicke had the carcass cremated at a pet cemetery, one piece at a time, and returned the ashes to the community for the ceremony.


Hauling a dead baby sperm whale onto a Big Island beach for a necropsy.

photo: courtesy kristi west


Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners can often be found at the scenes of dolphin or whale strandings, performing oli and pule, and generally keeping an eye on things. Trisha Kehaulani Watson, owner of Honua Consulting, serves as the network’s liaison to Native Hawaiian communities. She works to keep communication flowing between scientists and Hawaiians, and she helps to ensure that the opportunity to retrieve cultural resources is handled properly.


Whale teeth and bones, which were used by ancient Hawaiians to make ornaments and weapons, are prized by Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners today. While NOAA strictly regulates the possession of marine mammal parts, it allows their use for cultural purposes. Part of Watson’s job is to identify the individual or group that will be authorized to hold the parts. Her decision is guided by the idea that the animal is a gift to the area where it comes ashore. “It’s not a clearinghouse of parts for anybody from any area,” Watson says. “In our opinion, if a whale lands in Pahoa, that whale is a gift to Pahoa. If it lands in Milolii, it’s a gift to Milolii. And we believe that’s traditional.”


In addition to their cultural role, marine mammal carcasses also help with the advancement of science—another aspect of the Marine Mammal Response Network’s mission. In other words, if a carcass isn’t too badly decayed, the Native Hawaiian pule is followed by a modern scientific necropsy.

Kristi West, center, and assistants pick through the stomach contents of a pygmy sperm whale.


Dead Whales Tell Useful Tales

Kristi West keeps her dissection knives, specimen containers and carcass bag ready to go at all times. As director of the Marine Mammal Response Network’s stranding program, she performs the necropsies—the animal equivalent of human autopsies—on the dolphins and whales who meet their ends on or near shore.


Twenty times a year or so, West drops what she’s doing and rushes to the scene of a marine mammal stranding. As an associate professor of biology at Hawaii Pacific University, this means her students sometimes show up for class and find a sign saying something like, “Class canceled due to pygmy sperm whale stranding on Molokai.”


She wastes no time, because, when it comes to dissecting big, dead sea creatures, the fresher the better. “We lose information if we wait,” West says.


Hawaiian waters have some 20 different species of dolphins and whales, most of them rarely seen and little known. Strandings offer scientists invaluable opportunities to learn about their biology and ecology. “This is our opportunity to find out what they’re doing out there and how they’re making a living,” West says.


The whale ate a lot of squid, as this collection of squid beaks reveals.

Most strandings occur on the Neighbor Islands, often in remote spots demanding long hikes. Once, a pilot whale came ashore on Kailua Beach, a few blocks from West’s home, but that was a lucky break.


If possible, West brings her subjects to her outdoor necropsy lab, located in a remote corner of HPU’s Kaneohe campus, where nobody will complain about the smell. Only the smallest whales make it back to the lab, and small, in this case, is usually defined by Aloha Air Cargo, which has a 14-foot, 2,500-pound limit on such freight. If the animals aren’t fit for flight, or if they’re too remotely located to zip up in an ice-packed carcass bag and lug to the airport, West and a small team of research assistants—mostly students—set up a field lab and get to work.


Marine mammal necropsies are a gory business, but sometimes West finds pleasant surprises. While examining a decomposed pygmy sperm whale on a Lanai beach, for instance, she discovered a remarkably well-preserved fetus. (If you have a professional interest in the reproductive physiology of poorly understood cetacean species, this does indeed count as a pleasant surprise.)


There are also breakthroughs. Once, on Molokai, West examined what she thought was a Curvier’s beaked whale. It had an unusually shaped skull, but West figured she had just found an odd-looking individual. Not until she had a genetic analysis done did she discover the whale was actually a Longman’s beaked whale—a species that had long been suspected to exist in Hawaii but never confirmed until then.


Animals rarely strand themselves unless they’re gravely ill. If they’re still clinging to life when West arrives, and there’s clearly no chance of saving them, she administers a high dose of pentobarbital, much the way veterinarians euthanize dogs or cats.


There have been cases in other parts of the world where people have helped apparently healthy dolphins or whales back into deep water, and the animals have gone on their way. That’s yet to happen in Hawaii, West says. Typically, the animals just restrand themselves when people push them back into the sea. Well-meaning people trying to save a stranded animal usually aren’t doing it a favor, West says. “It’s similar to somebody stumbling onto the sidewalk after getting hit by a car, and you give them a drink of water and a Band-Aid, then push them back into traffic,” she says. “It’s considered ill-advised.”

Entangled whales can carry clues. The float on this humpback, photographed off Maui, identified the Alaskan fisherman who lost it.

photo: courtesy noaa


Dangerous Disentanglements

In addition to investigating whale deaths, the Marine Mammal Response Network investigates reported collisions between ships and whales, though usually there’s little to be done aside from documenting the event. It also amasses data on the types of marine debris in which whales become entangled, with an eye toward reducing future entanglements. And sometimes—in the most adrenaline-filled part of its mission—it cuts entangled whales free.


Whales periodically get tied up in fishing gear, mooring lines and other man-made objects. Sometimes the animals can shake off the problem themselves, but not always. Hopelessly entangled whales can starve, drown or succumb to infections that develop where taut ropes cut into their skin.


About 80 people throughout Hawaii have been trained through the marine mammal network to help with disentanglements in various roles, from taking notes to driving support boats. The disentanglement elite—those authorized by NOAA to actually make contact with whales, and trained to do so without getting killed—includes about a dozen NOAA personnel.


Whale disentanglement is dangerous work. In 2003, a New Zealand fishermen trying to free a 40-foot humpback caught in cray-pot lines died when the whale began to thrash and struck him with its tail.


Ed Lyman, coordinator of the network’s disentanglement program, says Hawaii’s whale rescuers learn to recognize the precursors of aggression and to quickly get out of the whale’s personal space when they detect them. Bubble blowing, tail swishing and the loud, wheezy exhales known as “trumpeting” are all signs of an irritated whale. “They give you a warning before they throw a punch,” Lyman says. “We try to be methodical and not surprise them, but they have their limits. We don’t want to take too long.”


Ed Lyman, with grappling hook, and fishing gear removed from a whale.


As a scientist, Lyman is cautious about presuming what goes on in the minds of the whales the rescuers try to help. On the other hand, “Sometimes they seem to know what we’re up to,” he says.


Disentanglers draw upon the techniques of the Yankee whalers, who hunted whales to near extinction in the 19th century. In a reprise of the “Nantucket sleigh ride,” the rescuers stick close to the whale by hitching their boat to the swimming animal and towing along behind it. The rescuers have also put a modern twist on the practice of “kegging,” substituting inflatable buoys, called polyballs, for the wooden barrels the whalers used to put the brakes on the swimming animals. Whereas the whalers plunged harpoons into the whale to attach their boat and barrels, the disentanglers toss grappling hooks into the entangling gear.

Rescuers take a “Nantucket sleigh ride.”

photo: courtesy noaa


Unlike the whalers, who pursued their prey in wooden skiffs, the disentanglers use Zodiacs, inflatable boats with soft hulls that won’t leave bruises if boat and whale collide. The first “keg” the disentanglers attach is something 19th century whalers couldn’t have imagined: a telemetry buoy, loaded with satellite, GPS and VHS radio transmitters. Disentanglement efforts can stretch on for days, and the high-tech buoy ensures the animal won’t give rescuers the slip.


Disentanglement can be surprisingly dirty work. Sick whales may be infested with sea lice, tiny, biting crablike creatures that also coat the entangling gear and, consequently, the rescuers hauling the gear into the Zodiac. Whales with respiratory infections blow mucus-laden mist from their blow holes, which also coats the rescuers.


Since 2003, when NOAA’s disentanglement effort began, rescuers have freed 15 humpbacks and one sei whale. Altogether, they have removed more than 6,700 feet of gear. About a third of it has been traced to Alaska, where humpbacks spend the summer. In three cases, the Alaskan gear actually included floats marked with fishing license numbers, which enabled Lyman to track down the fishermen who lost it and pinpoint when and exactly where the whales became ensnared. “The fishermen are very helpful,” Lyman says. “They hate the fact that they caught a whale.”


Thoroughly documenting the gear may help influence federal fishing regulations that reduce the likelihood of whale entanglements. This has already happened in Massachusetts, where NOAA, after determining that whales frequently became tangled there in the floating lines holding together strings of lobster pots and crab traps, created a rule requiring the use of sinking lines.


“We’re never going to free all of the entangled whales,” Lyman says. “We do want to free some entangled animals, especially ones in life-threatening situations. But the ultimate goal is to gain information toward prevention.”



Fur Seal Via FedEx

What became of the Northern fur seal found on the North Shore? After spending two nights at the Honolulu Zoo and receiving a blessing from a Hawaiian cultural practitioner, she was put on a FedEx flight to California and delivered to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. There she was tested for morbillivirus (she didn’t have it) and nursed back to health. After two and a half weeks, she was set free. In a YouTube video of the release, you can see her stumble out of her cage, look around for a moment then bolt for the sea.


A radio tag attached to her back allowed scientists to track her, and her course alarmed them as she swam several hundred miles to the southwest—toward Hawaii. She was about a third of the way back when she suddenly changed course and headed toward Mexico, much to the relief of Schofield, the Marine Mammal Response Network coordinator.


“There was a moment,” he says, “when we were like, Oh, no, here we go again.”