A U.S. Coast Guard airplane rumbled down an airstrip on Hawaii's Big Island, carrying hundreds of pounds of rare and precious cargo: seven endangered Hawaiian monk seals.
Federal officials found most of the young animals malnourished late last year in the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the northernmost islands and atolls in the Hawaiian Islands chain.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration brought the seals to the nonprofit Marine Mammal Center on the Big Island, which nursed them back to health.
Now rehabilitated, they have started their journey home.
The Coast Guard loaded the seals on a HC-130 Hercules plane Thursday and flew them to Honolulu. The Associated Press was on the flight.
The animals will stay in a NOAA facility on Oahu until they embark on a roughly weeklong journey by boat back to their home islands. One will return to the privately owned island of Niihau.
Monk seals number only about 1,200 worldwide, and they all live in the main or Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, federal officials said.
Fewer than one in five survive their first year in the uninhabited islands because of threats including predation, entanglement and environmental changes, according to the California-based Marine Mammal Center.
All those being transported Thursday were female, said Michelle Barbieri, a NOAA veterinarian with the Monk Seal Research Program who was aboard the flight.
"We focus our efforts on female seals because they're going to grow up and contribute to the population in the future," Barbieri said.
While in rehabilitation, the seals were nursed to a healthy weight to help increase their odds of survival. They also were taught to catch and eat fish naturally, with little human intervention, so they can hunt for themselves when they return to the wild.
Eric Roberts, a Coast Guard marine mammal response coordinator, helped bring the pups to the hospital when they were found and was there to escort them home.
"At the Coast Guard, we pride ourselves on being lifesavers, and this is a unique opportunity where we can actually contribute to saving a species," Roberts said.
The Marine Mammal Center has successfully released eight seals so far, but this group is its biggest recovery and release effort to date.
Rescuers normally transport only one or two seals at a time, making Thursday's effort "historic" and a major boost for the overall population in generations to come, said David Scholfield, a NOAA response coordinator for the Pacific Islands.
The monk seal population is declining by about 4 percent per year. Returning these animals to their home islands could have a big impact, he said.
"These seven animals would have died," Scholfield said. "So getting them back to health and having them potentially reproduce in the wild, and produce offspring, has a many magnitude effect" on the overall population.
Endangered seals start journey home after rehab (2016, April 15)
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Endangered seals start journey home after rehab