Watch: 3 Hawaiian monk seals return to ocean following care at Kona’s Ke Kai Ola

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Three endangered Hawaiian monk seals have a second chance at life in the ocean after being rehabilitated at Kona’s marine hospital, Ke Kai Ola and released back into the wild in March at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

The malnourished juvenile seals — Alena (PP32), Lelehua (DQ10) and Ikaika (WQ08) — were first seen in waters around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.


Staff from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries searched and found Alena and Lelehua on the same trip in 2022 at Pearl and Hermes Reef and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The pair joined Ikaika, who already was at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola, after being rescued during a previous trip to the monument around Laysan Island.


The seals spent months fattening up at Ke Kai Ola to get back to a healthy weight. In early March, the three were transported back to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where they were released on the Midway Atoll, also known as Kuaihelani, according to a press release from NOAA Fisheries.

“The Midway Atoll community is really excited to see these three monk seals adapting to their new home,” said Amanda Boyd, deputy superintendent for Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. “Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge provides ideal foraging, resting and breeding habitat to [more than] 70 Hawaiian monk seals.”



It was a team effort to get the Hawaiian monk seals back to their natural habitat. NOAA Fisheries called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a co-manager at Papahānaumokuākea. They offered access to the runway and facilities on Kuaihelani, where they operate the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway Memorial. They also provided helping hands to release the seals.

The U.S. Coast Guard stepped in and were able to provide a plane and flight crew.

The return to the wild for Alena, Lelehua and Ikaika involved a 3-day, pre-release acclimation period, known as a “soft release.” Staff monitored the seals and their surroundings while staying just out of view.

When officials with U.S. Fish and Wildlife released the seals from the beach pen, “everyone was delighted to see them calmly ease their way into the water at Kuaihelani.”

Dr. Sophie Whoriskey, Hawaiian monk seal conservation veterinarian at The Marine Mammal Center, said survival of each seal is critical to the recovery of the population.

“This success story highlights the critical importance of our ongoing partnerships to help give these animals a second chance at life,” she said.

Although the seals were released at healthy weights, they still face many threats in the wild. NOAA Fisheries will monitor them using satellite tags and unique individual flipper tags. Follow them in near-real time through the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System Animal Telemetry Network.

“We’re working to understand all of the factors that influence rehabilitated monk seals’ survival,” said Dr. Michelle Barbieri, lead scientist with the NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. “Observing their movement patterns over time helps inform how well the seals are acclimating post-release.”

The U.S. Coast Guard stepped in to give the three rehabilitated Hawaiian monk seals a lift to Kuaihelani (Midway Atoll). NOAA Fisheries Permit #23459. (NOAA Fisheries/Brenda Becker)

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