Current cruise of the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is providing critical support to Hawaiian monk seal population monitoring and research

July 19, 2005
Field camp personnel carrying supplies to their camps
Field camp personnel carrying supplies to their camps

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is at sea providing support for scientists monitoring the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal and conducting research on ways to enhance the species' recovery. The ship's primary mission is to give logistical support to remote field camps in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) that are the base of operations for monk seal scientists and to enable monk seal population census work at two of the islands where no camps exist. Secondarily, scientists and ship personnel will conduct sighting surveys of whales and dolphins in waters along the cruise track.

The research vessel will be at sea for 18 days in support of the Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP), part of the Protected Species Division at the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Most of MMRP's research is focused on monitoring and enhancing the recovery of the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. The Program establishes seasonal field camps at the six major breeding locations of the species throughout the NWHI. On the current Sette cruise, MMRP field personnel will be picked up and their camps disbanded at 5 sites (Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Midway Atoll and Kure Atoll). Another camp at French Frigate Shoals will be re-supplied. Scientists on the Sette will conduct seal censuses at 2 sites where no camp has been established (Nihoa Island and Necker Island).

Sette crew loading supplies unto the small boat to transport to the remote island camps
Sette crew loading supplies unto the small boat to transport to the remote island camps

Under the direction of Chief Scientists Chad Yoshinaga and Maire Cahoon, cruise personnel will load all equipment and supplies from the remote island camps onto the Sette, materials which have supported teams of 3-4 scientists during their 4 month stay in the field. Everything used in the camps, include tents, stoves, solar power arrays, computers, leftover food, small boats, and other materials, including garbage, must be removed, carried by hand to the water's edge, and shuttled in small boats from the islands to the ship waiting offshore.

MMRP scientists will spend a day each at Necker and Nihoa Islands to count seals, document observations of tagged seals, and apply identifying tags to weaned pups. Identification of seals at these two islands is important to MMRP's research, as these islands are closest to the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). Subsequent sightings of tagged seals will provide valuable information on the extent of their movements between the NWHI and the MHI, something currently unknown.

In conducting the cruise, the PIFSC will cooperate with several partner agencies, including the University of Hawaii, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Hawaii. MMRP staff will team up with University of Hawaii (UH) scientists on the Sette to systematically look for cetaceans while the ship is en route between islands and document the sightings for further study. The survey is part of the PIFSC's increasing involvement in cetacean research in Hawaii. In addition to supporting the cetacean survey, the ship will transport one UH researcher and one PIFSC scientist to French Frigate Shoals to study spinner dolphins there.

The Sette will also transport supplies and equipment for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintains field stations at French Frigate Shoals and Midway and a permanent camp at Laysan Island, and for the State of Hawaii, which supports a small contingent of personnel at Kure Atoll (a State of Hawaii seabird sanctuary). The ship's stops at French Frigate Shoals and Midway are also a chance to supply MMRP staff stationed there with fresh food and deliver mail and equipment.

Researchers conducting CTD operation
Researchers conducting CTD operation

NOAA Corps personnel on the Oscar Elton Sette will also collect oceanographic data. They will deploy a large 'CTD' instrument into the water, connected to the ship by a thick cable and electrical wires for transmitting data. As the CTD instrument sinks, it transmits data on the water's Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (hence the name 'CTD') back to the ship. These data are used to understand the physical characteristics and dynamics of the ocean habitats of various species of marine life and the factors that affect biological productivity in the NWHI marine ecosystems.