By Tim Stephens, UCSC Public Information Office
In 2009, federal officials monitoring the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population asked marine biologist Terrie Williams if she could care for an orphaned pup at her lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Williams, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, jumped at the opportunity to study one of these rare tropical seals in her marine mammal physiology program.
“Imagine having an endangered species placed in your hands. It was a daunting task,” said Williams, who had little idea at the time just what it would mean to get involved in the life of Kauai Pup 2, or KP2.
Williams’s new book, The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species (Penguin Press), is the story of this boisterous seal pup, the special bond Williams formed with him, and the scientific insights that could help to save an endangered species.
The Hawaiian monk seal is the most endangered marine mammal in American waters. Its current population of around 1,100 seals is declining at a rate of 4 percent per year. At this rate, the species faces extinction within 50 years. Williams is working closely with biologists at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, the federal agency responsible for marine mammals in U.S. waters) in their efforts to reverse that trend.
“We’re in a race to save this species,” she said. “Science can make a difference when we pay attention and understand what animals need. The monk seal researchers in Hawaii tell me that 20 percent of the current population is alive today because of the conservation efforts of the past 15 years. I’m hoping this book inspires people to help with that process. The most important first step for saving this species is for people to simply care.”
Terrie Williams will discuss her new book on the Diane Rehm Show on Wednesday, July 11, 2012 (broadcast locally at 11 a.m. on KUSP 88.5 FM and at 9 a.m. on KAZU 90.3 FM)
As she recounts in the book, many people from all walks of life have cared enough to help. NMFS biologists intervened in the life of KP2 when the 2-day-old pup was attacked and abandoned by its mother on a beach in Kauai. By the time Williams got involved, the orphaned seal was already a local celebrity. Released back into the waters of Hawaii after rehabilitation, KP2 had rejected his own kind and chosen to hang out with people at a popular beach in Molokai. Although relocated several times, he always returned to the same beach to swim and play with beachgoers and loll on the wharf. With environmental and safety concerns mounting, the controversial decision was made to move KP2 out of the wild and into Williams’s lab at UCSC’s Long Marine Laboratory.
At times, Williams said, she felt overwhelmed by the intensity of the media attention and the scrutiny of Molokai residents who had become deeply attached to “their” seal. It was almost enough to make her wish she was back in Antarctica studying Weddell seals (the subject of her previous book, The Hunter’s Breath).
“The human element was something I’d never had to deal with before,” Williams said. “I came to realize that in addition to science, we needed to get people involved in order for the species to survive. This seal pup had a remarkable effect on people, from the locals of Molokai to the military personnel who helped transport him and the students and volunteers across the Pacific Ocean who helped care for him. KP2 has become a conservation icon to so many people.”
During KP2’s stay in Santa Cruz, Williams was able to learn valuable information about monk seal physiology. For example, her research determined the dietary needs and ideal water temperatures for a monk seal, important factors in decisions being made about which areas should be designated as critical habitat for monk seals.
Researchers also determined that cataracts had impaired KP2’s vision to the point that he could never be released to the wild. Although this was a disappointment to Williams, she says his current home at the Waikiki Aquarium has turned out to be a great place for KP2. “They have a huge viewing window that allows him to interact with people. He still has not lost his attraction to kids. And through the aquarium programs the public is learning about monk seal conservation.”
Williams is continuing to promote monk seal conservation by asking others to use their own talents in the race to save the species. “You don’t have to be a marine biologist to save the Hawaiian monk seal,” she said. “Just show that you care. Write a song, a poem, or a story and post it on our website. Draw and share a picture. Make a YouTube video. Contact your representatives in Washington to let them know that monk seals and the science that will save them are important to you.”
Williams is currently working with another Hawaiian monk seal in her lab at UCSC. This one, KE18, has a very different history from KP2. An adult male, he was removed from the wild because he had been observed harassing and killing monk seal pups. “He’s got a personality all his own,” Williams said, “but the science we learn from him will be just as important for the species as what we’ve learned from KP2.”
More information about KP2 and how you can help can be found online at www.savemonkseals.ucsc.edu. Information about the Marine Mammal Physiology Project at UC Santa Cruz can be found at www.mmpp.ucsc.edu.