Day 10 – Seek and Find

January 25, 2012


This morning was almost too early. The boat leaving for Eastern Island was departing at 7:15am so that meant up, ready and have eaten breakfast all before 7am. But it was worth it. Over on Eastern we watched the sun rise and break through the clouds from the earlier rain. A rainbow hung over us as the morning progressed, watching over our work.

I was with a volunteer and another student to survey Laysan ducks at the freshwater seeps. We had broken away from the larger Duke group in order to help with this important task. Laysan ducks are originally from Laysan island – another island in the chain – and are thought to have once inhabited Midway atoll.

Surveying entailed walking to a seep, counting total number of ducks and noting if there were any migratory species of ducks (this means carefully sneaking up on the seeps; the migratory species are very jumpy). While making observations, we noted whether any ducks flew away or flew in to the seep. Our observations consisted of quietly waiting by the water’s edge with binoculars in order to see which ducks were banded – and count the number of banded versus unbanded ducks – and then to read the bands, if possible. The bands were either little and metal or colored anklets around the ducks legs. The colored bands were much easier to read; the metal bands were almost impossible.

After surveying all three seeps on Eastern Island (there are 12 seeps on Sand Island, so their survey took much longer) we further explored the island. Taking pictures of albatross and their chicks – which are now starting to hatch more and more every day – and searching for new birds and glass floats. Still no luck on glass floats but we did see a pair of Masked Boobies.

These boobies seemed to be nesting, which was exciting, however, upon closer examination we determine the egg to be an albatross egg. It is common for birds to sometimes get confused as to which egg is theirs and even what is an egg; we saw an albatross just moments later attempting to incubate a plastic stake in the ground.

Hopping on the boat to take us back to Sand Island I waved goodbye to the blue waters of this uninhabited place; most likely, we will not return to Eastern Island.

But by the afternoon I had forgotten all about Eastern Island. I was on an adventure with Tracy Wurth, the monk seal biologist, to survey Sand Island for monk seals. We were joined by another student who has a background in seal biology working with Stellar Sea Lions in Alaska and Washington; she has already accompanied Tracy but was coming to gain even more experience.

Surveying with Tracy meant we could bypass the 150 feet rule (staying 150 feet away from monk seals so as not to disturb them) and possibly watch as she bleached the seals, or even help out – bleaching the seals allows for easy identification for the rest of the season, or year.

Walking the closed beaches, we spotted monk seal tracks – swishy-looking marks in the sand – and followed them to find seals. Once found, we approached cautiously making sure the seal was really zonked out on the sand. We looked for tags in order to identify the seal and take pictures of any unique markings to compare with past pictures.

In the back of our minds (or at least mine and Katie’s, the other student) we were searching for glass floats. Tracy has an amazing knack for finding these floats and closed beaches are the perfect area to find them.

Katie looked out in the distance and pointed at what she thought was a seal. Tracy replied by taking Katie’s arm and pointing down at the sand. Confused, Katie searched around while my eyes went to the greenish glass poking its way out of the surrounding whiteness.

I had found a glass float! Ok, so maybe Tracy did the finding but the point is that I was in possession of a float! Small, tinted green with bryozoans taking over, it was beautiful.

Continuing on, the float made me slightly less jealous when Katie got to bleach the first seal. The process of mixing the bleach (Clairol hair product), making sure it is the perfect consistency to not clog up the bottle but not run down the seal’s back, and tiptoeing through the sand to sneak up on the seal without waking it. The procedure went off without a hitch…until the seal decided to roll over as they were walking away. Most likely, the markings will just be slightly squished but still be readable.

We came upon another seal completely passed out, laying on its side. Tracy turned to me and asked me if I wanted to help bleach the seal. Of course I did! Nervously, I crawled up behind Tracy as she made the first mark. Careful not to touch the seal (it will immediately wake him up as one student found out) I wrote, upside down, “09” shaking like crazy. Crawling away, it was one of the most amazing experiences.

We finished the survey, finding 15 total seals including the seal that was bit by a shark and still survived. She’s doing well but we are worried she will not be able to heal the gaping hole in her blubber layer.

Cloud 9 could not describe my feelings. Bleaching a seal and finding a glass float all in one day!