On January 28, 2012 (A Pro Bowl Sunday) I received a call from our board president with HMSRTO. Donna Festa was attending the Pro Bowl so it makes it a day to remember. She informed me that we needed to get to the Waikiki Aquarium ASAP to get a tank ready to receive a Northwestern Hawaiian Island seal, tagged KE18.
We all knew him up to this point as the “killer” seal that had frequented Kure Atoll and had been accused of wounding 11 other seals, killing 2 pups, one of which was a female, and was just a big bully that was going to be euthanized. His behavior towards his own species, in crisis, was not acceptable and he just could not go on doing so much damage to the recovery of the species. He was 9 years old and although this behavior had been noted in older seals, it was somewhat strange for a male seal in his age bracket. A very hard decision by officials was reached, even though we all protested and hoped for an intervention of some sort.
Fortunately for all concerned, KE18 disappeared about the time the team was sent to seek him out. It would be sometime later that he was found on Midway Island, in an area where his capture could be conducted safely. By that time many monk seal advocates had appealed to the team sent to collect him and a temporary home had been found for him at the Waikiki Aquarium.
On Pro Bowl Sunday, January 29, 2012 a group of volunteers converged on the tanks at the Waikiki Aquarium (WAQ) to get a space ready for the “killer” seal. We had no idea what to expect as most of our seals are fairly tame and generally can be helped or cared for with trained volunteers and NOAA personnel. We had NO idea what to expect from this very large animal that had shown a great deal of aggression in his home at Kure.
Once he was settled in the care taking began. He was observed and although did not show much aggression we still had no idea what to expect. NOAA’s Dera Look and I were some of the first trained personnel to start the caregiving aspect for this animal. Crowding boards were utilized and training protocols were observed for safety and watching each other’s back.
Going into the tank to clean seal poop, being such a glamorous job for all, is part of the caregiving aspect. Putting meds into fish and getting him to eat can be a challenge, but we weren’t even there yet. This seal became such a gentle giant within just a couple of days we were all in awe. Our first visit into the tank he rolled away from us so we could clean one poopy side and then rolled to the other side so we could clean the other side. Although we had crowding boards, they were not needed. There was a lot of speculation on why this 9-year old’s persona nearly got him put down. One vet who visited almost immediately said the seal had pre-juvenile scars, very deep all over him. This could only mean that he had survived the same abuse as a
pup that he was visiting upon other seal pups. He was only acting out learned behavior. We were all wondering why he suddenly became such a gentle soul and the vet said most likely he had never been treated with any kindness. Receiving kindness from humans was most likely nothing he had ever been exposed to.
KE18 became what I will always refer to as a Gentle Giant. He was always a joy to watch in the tank and see what his reaction was to enhancement toys and people in general. As usual our 3 weeks of caregiving and rehab turned into two months and we finally reached the day when we would have to say goodbye to our gentle giant.
KE18 would be transported to Santa Cruz research hospital on March 22, 2012. We had only had a few weeks to get to know him and I can honestly say he made a huge impact on many of his caregivers and the volunteers. Putting him on a Coast Guard C130 and saying goodbye was just as hard as saying goodbye to KP2 when he went to live with Dr. Terrie, Traci, Beau. There were more than a few tears shed and lots of Aloha O’e as we knew we would be meeting again. Thank you Santa Cruz team for taking such special care of such a special seal.
Several volunteers who were receiving additional training at The Marine Mammal Center in California were fortunate enough to get to visit him while he was in Santa Cruz in 2013. Normally human interaction is strictly forbidden, but since he was going to live out his life as a captive seal, we were able to do tummy pets and interact with this gentle soul during our visit. It has been a very long 9 years to be away from his island home.
But, now we all have a wonderful reason to celebrate. The plans that were made way back in 2012 and beyond to build him a special habitat have finally come to fruition. KE18 is finally coming home to Hawaii. Sea Life Park, who had a vision for this animal is welcoming him to their Ohana. This will be a great opportunity for the world to see what can be done to save a species. Not only did KE18 get another chance to help his species, he is now back in the loving arms of his Ohana that cared for him and showed love and kindness to an animal that had never known anything but the harsh reality of survival.
A Hui Hou, until we meet again, is finally here and the excitement to welcome back KE18 to the islands is hard to contain. Many of the volunteers who looked after him will be attending an opening celebration at Sea Life Park when they open the new monk seal exhibit and habitat. I hope the world and the public visiting Hawaii will come to meet him and help his species by learning and understanding the vital role they provide in supporting pono in our oceans and here in Hawaii.