Thursday | November 23, 2017
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A healing place for monk seals | Blessing and grand opening of Ke Kai Ola celebrated Tuesday

The Hawaiian monk seals at this new hospital have been entangled in trash and fishing gear, struck by boats, bit by dogs, attacked by sharks, stricken with disease, and are malnourished.

With fewer than 1,000 in existence, these seals are also critically endangered.

Some injured and ill monk seals are never spotted and die. The lucky ones now will come here to Ke Kai Ola, or “The Healing Sea,” a unique state-of-the-art hospital dedicated to the rescue and care of this species.

The Marine Mammal Center hosted a much-anticipated grand opening celebration and blessing Tuesday evening at the $3.2 million facility at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority in North Kona. While scientists monitor monk seal populations and conduct interventions, when possible and necessary, they didn’t have all the resources to provide the kind of care needed until Ke Kai Ola.

“We built this hospital to save a species,” said The Marine Mammal Center Executive Director Dr. Jeff Boehm.

During an exclusive behind-the-scene tour of Ke Kai Ola, Boehm called Tuesday “a monumental day,” one that compliments the work already accomplished by The Marine Mammal Center, a California-based nonprofit veterinary hospital, research and education center that rescues and rehabilitates ill and injured marine mammals, as well as studies their health. Since 1975, the center has rescued and provided medical care to more than 18,500 marine mammals along the central and northern California coast.

With Ke Kai Ola, Boehm said the center will be a key partner in “enhancing a timely and collaborative effort in the conservation of monk seals.” About 900 Hawaiian monk seals are found in the Northwestern Hawaii Islands, a 1,200-mile archipelago of small islands and atolls. The species has been on decline, mostly because of poor juvenile survival.

Fewer than one in five monk seal pups in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands survive their first year because of threats such as marine debris, food chain changes and predation.

By leveraging its expertise with that of “an already passionate and supportive community,” the center will not just provide second chances at this new hospital, but also make them count even more.

Ke Kai Ola will allow even more seals to be helped, Boehm said. Such a facility has been wanted by many for more than a decade, and “a major focus is to restore and help accelerate the monk seal to a healthy population,” he added.

Ke Kai Ola has two pens with pools for juvenile and adult seals, two pens with pools for neonates, quarantine areas, a medical laboratory, food preparation area, staff and volunteer support areas, as well as an open-air visitor and education center. While the facility is officially open, the last bits of construction, such as painting of interiors and installing of flooring in some rooms, are expected to be finished in two weeks, Boehm said.

However, the hospital is not open to the public as it is an important life-saving temporary haven for the sick or injured.

“Maintaining a balance of the providing positive care and keeping the wildness of the animals treated is of utmost importance,” Boehm said.

Still, the center plans to develop outreach programs to educate the public about the seals and conservation efforts, encourage environmental stewardship, and introduce youth to careers in veterinary medicine and marine science, he added.

There’s also the opportunity to volunteer at the hospital in various areas, including animal care, rescue and education. Those interested must go through a special training and there’s a waiting list, said Deb Wickham, Ke Kai Ola operations manager. Currently, Ke Kai Ola has about 50 volunteers, she added.

Wickham is Ke Kai Ola’s only paid employee, and efforts are being made to build its network of volunteers. Volunteers are a tremendous asset, and Boehm said the center looks forward to capitalizing on their talents, intelligence and generous spirit.

Boehm estimated Ke Kai Ola’s annual operating cost to be about a quarter million dollars. As a nonprofit, he said the center relies on 80 percent of its funding from private individuals, corporations and foundations. Continued support is needed to ensure the facility’s success. He also noted “funding from the Firedoll Foundation, as well as a very generous family foundation and hundreds of other donors throughout the world,” made the building of Ke Kai Ola possible.

Despite the illness and injuries, Ke Kai Ola is a place of happiness. The center recently celebrated the release of its first four patients treated at the hospital.

Four young, malnourished monk seals — named Kulia, Ikaika, Halai and Makaala — were admitted to Ke Kai Ola on July 9 after being rescued by the center and NOAA researchers in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Veterinary experts and training volunteers cared for the underweight seals under strict treatment regimes, which demanded limited visual and physical human contact. For instance, fish are thrown over the screened pens, talking around the animals is severely limited, and herding boards are used to maneuver the seals safely and effectively, Wickham said.

The seals were deemed healthy enough to return to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands on Aug. 31. They are still en route to their homes aboard a NOAA ship. The first one was expected to be delivered at the French Frigate Shoals by Wednesday, Wickham said.

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