Those who help the Sea

My time at Ke Kai Ola

News Writer Gina Selig

Photos courtesy of The Marine Mammal Center a seal basking in the sun on a beach!

My first experience with The Marine Mammal Center was during a field trip to Ke Kai Ola that I attended with MOP at the beginning of the semester. Never having been to a rehabilitation center before, I didn’t know what to expect. However, as soon as I stepped onto their lanai, I was immediately inspired. It was shocking to see the size of the facility especially since they are relatively new to the island. It gave me hope to see how much dedication there was for the purpose of the Hawaiian monk seal, Neomonachus schauinslandi, a species with only about 1,400 left in the world.

With Neomonachus schauinslandi being so endangered, rehabilitation organizations like Ke Kai Ola are pivotal and a huge step forward for monk seals. I am very happy that efforts to recover the population of monk seals have been implemented. The Marine Mammal Center has responded to more than 21,000 marine mammals since 1975 affording them the expertise to care for endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal. I also couldn’t help to think how impactful a field trip to Ke Kai Ola would be to our youth. Little did I know, I would soon be helping educators at Ke Kai to do that very thing, impact our youth.

Being enrolled in the MOP project class, I was searching for a project that would involve marine mammals. Initially, I wanted to study the bioacoustics of sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalu. However, the feasibility of the project turned out to be more difficult than I accounted for. I then, stumbled across an email advertising the Kai Kai Ola Education Intern opportunity.

Its description stated, “The Ke Kai Ola” Education Intern supports marine science education programs offered by Ke Kai Ola, The Marine Mammal Center’s Hawaiian monk seal hospital located in Kona, Hawai’i. As a Ke Kai Ola Education Intern, this role focuses on supporting the development and facilitation of education programs. Under the direction of the Center’s education team, interns will gain exposure to all aspects of Ke Kai Ola operations to gain valuable experience and inform their ability to translate Center operations into high quality education programs.

They also stated that, “A primary aspect of the internship will be to work with the School & Extended Learning Programs team to identify and execute a project of interest to the intern and that will benefit Ke Kai Ola education programs and the community.” Being that my mother is a middle school teacher, I have always had a passion for education. This was the perfect opportunity to improve my teaching skills and see if education is the career path I want to pursue. When I visited the hospital, I talked to an educator who was very passionate about teaching and it was very inspiring, so I decided to apply. Soon after the interview, I was joyfully notified that I had been accepted as an intern.

As this was my first marine science-related internship, I was very excited to get to work with Sara Smith, the School and Extended Learning Programs coordinator, and Tara Spiegel, a marine science educator. My first training happened over Zoom video communications where we discussed the proper way to answer questions about Hawaiian monk seals and even got to meet the team that works at The Marine Mammal Center’s headquarters in Sausalito, California. Over the next couple of weeks, I learned more about the new marine science program, Nā Kōkua o ke Kai, or “those who help the sea,” which is a year-long program and curriculum that is targeted to grades six through eight on Hawai’i Island offered at no cost to schools. Middle school students are at a pivotal time to start thinking about science careers so this program is geared toward teaching them to care for the health of our oceans and environment.

Another wonderful part of the new curriculum is that it includes field trips to Ke Kai Ola and the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center. I was able to observe Smith and Spiegel in action as marine science educators. It was very inspiring to see the passion they displayed for the ocean and marine life. The importance of environmental stewardship was taught to the students in a respectful way and it was amazing to see the engagement and curiosity of the students.

Another part of my internship has been helping Sylvester Orosco, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Response Manager and Animal Care Specialist at The Marine Mammal Center, to recruit student volunteers to the Monk Seal Response Team on island. I created a poster design that was not only fun to make but filled with information to excite student volunteers.

Our first meeting was at 5:30 p.m. on April 27 at the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center. There, I helped lead the volunteers during their training session, in order to prepare for the May 20 seal count! Being an intern for The Marine Mammal Center at Ke Kai Ola has been a monumental part of my spring semester. I learned valuable information on marine science education and how important it is to the future of our environment. It was also very inspiring to see the hard work that has been put into Nā Kōkua o ke Kai a curriculum that will impact middle school students and the island for years to come! The strengths that I have developed during this internship have definitely increased my confidence, in terms of my leadership abilities. Being designated as a student ambassador was monumental for me. It made me realize that I can have an important role in planning the future of marine science-related activities at UH Hilo.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.