Thursday, July 30, 2015

Monk Seals!!!

Yesterday I began my volunteer program--those who know me, know I can't go to any wild place and not do some sort of conservation!  Here on O'ahu, I am working with the Monk Seal Foundation.  The sad fact of the matter is that Monk Seals are one of the most endangered species in the world, their numbers hovering around 1100 right now. 

Just waking up after a nap.  Mom is large and silver, and the pup, Holokai is dark.
 With dwindling habitat, infectious diseases, entanglements in fishing nets, ingesting fish hooks, and injuries from boats, their numbers are decreasing by 4% a year!  Unfortunately, with so many species in danger on the islands, and so much space to cover, the regulation of endangered species is minimal.  Thankfully, generous volunteers, like those with the Monk Seal Foundation, are trying to do their part to help.  They have a good number of local people who work regular shifts monitoring the seals, and the occasional "voluntourist" like me who help out.  Hopefully other similar non-profits will take hold to protect the other species here.

My work with the foundation actually began the first day I was on the island.  Irene and I drove up to the north shore, to Turtle Bay Resort, where a large section of coastline is monitored for seals.  There, the volunteer coordinator, Dana, gave an orientation presentation to all new volunteers, giving us factual information about the Monk Seals, threats to the population, and an explanation of our volunteer responsibilities.  
Dana orients all of us new volunteers on the Monk Seal Foundation's mission.
After a thorough introduction, Irene and I went about the rest of our trip, but I returned and had my first official day volunteering yesterday.  Most of what we do is try to educate passers-by.  People are usually so excited to see the seals that they go too close, or even try interacting with them.  We try to help people understand why we ask them to stay away, and just generally raise awareness about this critically endangered species.

As often as possible we also try to engage with local fishermen.  Even giving out free
barbless hooks to try to minimize the number of hooking incidents for local seals.
Educating tourists running on the beach.
 Another part of our work is in documenting behavior.  There is a mother and pup who are being watched carefully to assure that the mother and pup are healthy and developing as they should.
Writing notes about nursing and napping schedules.  Much like any new mom!
This is La'akea.  She is actually the pup's auntie!
This is Uma'lea and her pup Holokai (who only just got his name on Monday).

Here is Umalea and her pup Holokai in their cove.

The exciting part of this, is that the foundation watched Uma'lea grow up!  Her mom, Honey GIrl, has had 10 girls on this same coastline.  Now Uma'lea has turned five, and is herself having her first pup in the same cover where she herself was born!  It's wonderful to watch them (from 150' back).  Uma'lea is an incredibly sweet and affectionate mother.  More than any other seal mom they have seen, she is outwardly affectionate with the pup, as seen here putting her flipper around him, pulling him to her and snuggling.
Mom is often seen with her flipper around her pup.
A behavior unique to this first-time mother.
I was very lucky to witness Holokai's first venture out into open water.  Up until now, mom has been caring for him in a protected cove, the same cove where she was born!  Moms stay with their pups for only about 7 weeks, and he is 4 weeks old, so the next few weeks are devoted to teaching him how to find his own food and to survive on his own.  Yesterday's lesson was getting in and out of the rock shelf, swimming in open water for the first time.  The pup was apprehensive, and mom had to bark at him a lot, but eventually they made two trips.   They didn't go far or stay too long, but he did well for his first day.
Mom is teaching her pup to go out into the open water for the first time, leaving the security of the
 pool where he has been raised.  Here she is encouraging him across the rock shelf out into the sea.
Mom is calling the pup to come out, but he's not eager.
The pup's first venture out into open water!  
The pup needed a rest afterwards.  All the exertion and excitement really took a lot out of him!
 But look at how satisfied mom looks!
More snuggling
  Once the excitement of open water was done, and the pup had rested and nursed, now he was feeling fiesty!  He yelped, snapped, nipped, and wiggled, trying to get mom to play with him.  She even nipped him back a few times!  It was great fun to watch!

Pup playing with mom: yelping, nipping, poking at her.
Once my shift was over, I made my way back to the hostel, tired from the sun and the 15 mile round trip on my bike.  I was looking forward to getting in the water and relaxing by the sea.  But of course, no sooner had I gotten to the beach, than I was already back at work.  A large female seal came out to bask on the beach across from where I am staying!  A local had called the hotline, and someone from the response team came out, putting up signs to keep people away from the seal...  not everyone paid attention, though.  So I stayed nearby, answering questions, and doing what I could to explain what was going on.  I fielded questions like:  "Is the seal ok?"  "Do we need to help it get back in the water?"  "Is this seal always here like an attraction?"  "Is he supposed to be here?  I thought seals liked cold water."  I answered what I could, and hoped I was doing right by the seal.

All told, our visitor stayed basking on the beach for over two hours, rolling over pretty regularly, and even occasionally digging her head in the sand!  It was amazing to see her so up close.  When she had finally had enough, she inch-wormed herself back into the water and was gone.  I was surprised that she had stayed on that beach as long as she did, since they tend to like more quiet, remote beaches.  She seemed pretty tolerant though, despite the yelling and frolicking going on around her.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Moku Noi Island Bird Sanctuary, Oahu

Yesterday, Irene and I embarked on what has been one of my favorite adventures from our trip.  Up until now, our time was spent on the north shore of Oahu, known for it's surfing and laid-back attitude.  Yesterday, we drove to Kailua, located on the southeast coast.  There we decided to rent a double kayak, and  paddle our way to the twin islands of Moku Nui and Moku Iki.

After getting an intense warning from the rental shop about 7' waves, avoiding whitewater, and how to properly get in and out of our boat, we strapped it to the top of our rented jeep and made our way to a small beach for launch.  The paddle out was easier than implied, and the waves nowhere near as bad.  We enjoyed the beautiful turquoise water, watching the islands get closer, and the flyovers of military helicopters from the nearby naval base.

We landed safely on the shore, parked ourselves with all the other boats, and headed off to explore the island.  Although beautiful in their own right, especially surrounded by the gorgeous light green water, my main draw was to visit the bird sanctuary.   Both islands are protected in order to preserve nesting habitat for local seabirds, who are suffering from shrinking habitats, sickness, and dwindling food supply.   Both islands are small, but they provide good habitat for ground nesting birds, since they need light vegetation as protection from the elements and from predators.

As we began walking the narrow, dusty trail, we were surprised to look down and see birds underfoot!  This was one of the first pictures that I took:

Just some flight feathers sticking out of a hole!

These shearwaters just make nests right in the ground, either by digging one out themselves, taking an abandoned hole, or just finding a nice shady bush!  As we walked, we saw more and more!  There were nests everywhere!  It reminded me a lot of my visit to Genovesa Island in the Galapagos where birds just sat there calmly watching the humans go by.  What was different with the shearwaters, though, was they were tucked into holes and under bushes.  It felt a bit like one of those search games from highlights magazine come to life:  "There are 17 birds in this picture.  How many can you find?"  Needless to say, I got really into it, though I didn't keep count.

First I noticed all the birds, and then I saw this:

But again, once I noticed one (just about the size of a chicken egg) I saw them everywhere!  Shearwater eggs under bushes, in holes, in soft piles of grass...  Usually a solo, unattended egg, sometimes two.  My very own Easter egg hunt.  No collecting, of course.

One of my favorite moments in an already amazing day was one I nearly missed.  I had just turned back on the trail, heading back to the boat for our journey to the beach.  I happened to glance over my shoulder to an egg I had photographed only moments earlier.  Now, it's mother has returned.  I watched her as she turned the egg around and over with her beak, carefully situating it before she settled down herself, completely covering the egg with her soft down feathers.  It happened in less than a minute, so I'm lucky to have gotten the few shots that I have.

High from the excitement of photographing nature, I meandered the narrow pathway around the island and made my way back to the landing beach.  Irene was already there waiting for me, snacking on some food we had brought with us lashed to our boat.  We suited up, re-lashed our gear, and launched into the waves.  We were thankful to find that the wind and current were in our favor this time, cutting our return trip time in half from the trip out.  I paddled the whole way back happily, reflecting on what a beautiful day it had been, and how lucky I felt to have stepped into nature's world, even for just a moment.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Wimea Gardens, O'ahu

This years travels have brought me to Hawaii.  My good friend, Irene, and I teamed up for the first part of my journey, deciding on Hawaii because of it's offerings for her--hiking and seafood, and for me--nature and scuba diving.  This is not Irene's first visit to the islands, so we opted on O'ahu, since she had seen Kauai and The Big Island on previous trips.

We have now been here for about 4 days.  We have hiked, snorkeled, sunbathed, visited local gardens, swam, and eaten our fill of tropical fruit,... well, almost.  We have 6 more days to do that, if it's even possible!

Today's post is about some of the things I saw when we explored Waimea Valley.  The culmination of this site is a waterfall and natural pool for swimming.  It's nice, but a bit of a tourist trap; even on a quiet day it was packed.  It was nice to take a quick dip and cool off., but my favorite part of the visit was the gardens.

For 3/4 of a mile, there are looping pathways lined with different tropical species of plants.  I spent a couple hours exploring here, finding lots of interesting plants and flowers.  Sadly, I'm not a very good student of arboretums, since I didn't read the names of each plant.  Ha!  Oops!  I was too busy looking for beautiful things!

I was particularly drawn to the few varieties of water lilies.  Here are some of my favorite shots:

Just as I was about to leave, I happened to spot movement on these tree blossoms.  It caught my attention, and I looked more closely.  Can you see what I saw?

At the very top there is a small, young gecko, only about 2" long.  I staked him out for the next 45 minutes or more...  who knows how long it was.  (When I get in the zone, time just stands still.  It's like that when I'm photographing and when I'm drawing.  I start, and before you know it, hours have passed).

So I stalked this little guy for some time, hoping to catch him at JUST the right moment.  But geckos, as I'm sure you can imagine, move really fast!  Just as I would frame the picture just right and get all the right settings, and focus, hop! he'd be in another spot.  Being so small, and so well camouflaged made it even harder!  I could barely find him each time he jumped out of my frame.  I ended up getting quite a few pictures of him that I like.  I hope you enjoy!

More to come soon! If you happen to know what any of the pictured things are, please feel free to post!  Thanks for reading!