The NOAA Live! Webinar Learning Experience — All About Hawaiian Monk Seals

Online learning is bringing new possibilities || Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a digital learning Renaissance as people stay inside and spend quality time with digital devices — phone, tablet, computer, TV… you name it, you’re probably glued to it. Agencies, institutions, universities, and non-profits know it and have shifted a lot of educational material and opportunities online to the public’s benefit.

One such example is that of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Live! Webinar Series, “a partnership between NOAA’s Regional Collaboration Network, Woods Hole Sea Grant, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution that developed during COVID-19-related school closures”. Kids gotta learn! While the webinars are targeted towards grades 2–8, all are welcome to tune in. Learning is lifelong, lest we forget.

On January 20th, 2020, I attended the webinar titled “It Takes a Village to Save the Hawaiian Monk Seal” with presenters Stacie Robinson (Ecologist @ NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Honolulu, HI) and Wendy Marks (School & Youth Programs Manager @ the Marine Mammal Center, Kona, HI). Moderating was Grace Simpkins (Woods Hole Sea Grant Educator @ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Falmouth, MA).

Hawaiian monk seal taking a well-deserved nap || Photo by Bea Minus on PublicDomainPictures

I may not be in grades 2–8 as I have a BSc in Marine Biology and an MSc in Wildlife Biology & Conservation… but I also haven’t had the pleasure of learning about Hawaiian monk seals — a species whose name and endangered status I am familiar with, but of whose ecology and targeted conservation efforts I am less so.

The following covers my first impressions, information gleaned, and my overall experience.

First Impressions

Right off the bat, I took notice of David Sabala, an American Sign Language remote interpreter. His presence was a wonderful addition that opened up webinar accessibility to folks experiencing hearing loss, an asset that not all digital learning programs have! The NOAA Live! Webinar page notes which webinars in the series will have an interpreter. Additional acknowledgment of the indigenous peoples and lands where speakers were located was welcome and grounding — the present-day plight of many flora and fauna species can be attributed to changes in the relationship between people and nature post-colonization.

Even though the webinar was targeted towards grades 2–8, the content was not over-simplified — it was truly accessible, engaging, and informative for all ages. Having a Q&A portion every 15–25 minutes was an effective way to participate as an audience member. Clear communication made normally complex concepts like inter-species competition easily understandable. I especially enjoyed the way relatively advanced terms like “benthic” were introduced definition first, vocabulary word second, e.g. “Hawaiian monk seals dive to hunt for prey species along the ocean floor. Species that are associated with the ocean floor are also called ‘benthic’ species.”

Stacie Robinson — NOAA

Stacie started the viewer’s journey off with a brief history covering the earliest human presence in the Hawaiian islands to the present (spanning ~800 years), noting that Hawaiian monk seals disappeared from the main Hawaiian islands after they were populated. She also covered the differences in geographical scale, habitat, monk seal population size, and threats between the main and northwestern Hawaiian Islands. As predicted, and with sobering effect, monk seals on the populated main Hawaiian Islands are negatively impacted by human disturbance, diseases contracted from domestic cat feces in runoff, and fishing gear. Northwestern Hawaiian Island monk seals are not immune from human influence and are negatively impacted by marine debris, sea-level rise associated with climate change, and prey scarcity from historically overfished fisheries.

Kauai coastline || Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

NOAA does an incredible amount of work in partnership with The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC) to disentangle monk seals from fishing gear and debris (sometimes through surgical intervention), rehabilitate ill and injured individuals, and develop public education initiatives. One such educational experience was provided in-series: a video from a seal-mounted GoPro highlighting foraging behavior and an activity map. Let me tell you, monk seals do quite a bit of traveling to find their preferred fishy delicacies.

Wendy Marks — The Marine Mammal Center

As with any virtual platform, technology glitches happen to the best of us, in this case with Wendy! While she wasn’t able to show her slide presentation, she successfully pivoted on-the-spot to get the conversation going about monk seal patient mental and physical stimulation AKA “enrichment” at TMMC.

Just like you and me, monk seals like to play with their food — it’s good practice for hunting in the wild since fish really make seals work for their food. I sure would, if I was that fish food. Enrichment included “coral reef feeding devices” for crevice exploration (imagine, crates strapped together with fish lodged in various crevices), “fishcicles” for problem-solving (imagine, literally, a fish trapped in an icicle), and “jolly eggs” for practicing moving objects with snouts (imagine, a big rubber egg also popular with dogs).

Hawaiian monk seal patients learn how to survive, and thrive, in the wild || Photo by Sarah Lee on Unsplash

Playing with live food is just as valuable as hidden and frozen food, to the detriment of some sea cucumbers and kampachi fish. Wendy provided a fantastic video of a monk seal patient foraging for the latter — the underwater agility of these marine mammals is truly astounding.

Perhaps a personal highlight, my submitted question was asked! I wondered if monk seal patients exhibited different personalities or preferred particular enrichment activities and toys. In fact, as Wendy shared, a cultural advisor comes to observe patients for several hours and offers each a Hawaiian name that fits their unique personality. That was an unexpected vignette into patient care and I would think it only enhances their stay by being treated as individuals in their own right, with their own names and personality quirks. Wendy also shared that, yes, patients totally have preferences for enrichment just like one dog prefers a rope toy and another prefers a squeaky toy. Her personal example was that of a young patient that loved sea cucumbers!

Join In

I learned a lot! I want to learn more! I want students in grades 2–8 to feel that way too, and based on my experience with this webinar, I’m confident they will if they tune in for future iterations. I highly recommend attending a NOAA Live! Webinar Series in your near future, regardless of age or student status (I know I will). Now is the time to absorb new knowledge, engage with scientists the world over, and take advantage of technological advances. The Internet is your oyster… you may yet find a pearl out there.

BSc/MSc Marine & wildlife biologist and conservationist | Pursuing a future in science communication | Advocate of public engagement, inspiration, & education