At the Marine Mammal Physiology Project (MMPP), a UC Santa Cruz extension that sits on the cliffs just above Natural Bridges beach, Terrie Williams is working to save a species.
A professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCSC since 1994, Williams has been involved in a variety of research projects both in the field and back at the lab — from Weddell seals in the Antarctic to blue whales in the Pacific. It’s her recent experience with another marine mammal, however — the Hawaiian monk seal KP2 — that’s spawned a book and an assortment of efforts to keep the remaining 1,100 monk seals worldwide from becoming extinct.
Released on July 5, “The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species” describes Williams’ encounter with a young monk seal named KP2 who was brought to the MMPP in early 2010 in an effort to understand the physiology of the species better — and the existential crisis it faces.
“That’s really the reason I wrote the book,” Williams said, “to get people to understand that this is a pretty unique animal and that it could easily die off within our lifetimes and that … there’s a lot we can do to prevent that.”
Williams also drafted a petition to Congress, asking them to reinstate a 35 percent cut made last year in the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) budget to monitor and protect monk seals.
So far, she said, the reaction to both the book and the petition have been “overwhelming.” Nonetheless, if the monk seal population continues its current trajectory of dropping four percent annually, they will be extinct in 50 years. Williams said that outcome could have unforeseen consequences.
“They’re the only animal in Hawaii that goes from freshwater to the coast and back onto land. There’s no other marine mammal that does that in Hawaii,” Williams said. “And if you take out that sort of land-oceanic link, what’s that going to do? It’s hard to predict but I suspect it’s going to be pretty devastating.”
Despite a longtime interest in monk seals — she had tried unsuccessfully for 15 years to get a permit from NMFS to study the endangered species — her opportunity to work with the species came as quite a surprise.
“For a while they just couldn’t make the connection between the science we wanted to do and saving the species,” Williams said.
That all changed in 2010. Williams was in Antarctica conducting research with Weddell seals when she got an email from NMFS. They had found a baby monk seal trying to suckle on a rock after being abandoned by its mother, and they asked if Williams could find a home for it because they were unable to pay for its care. Williams jumped at the chance.
“So I told them yes, not knowing how we were really going to do it,” Williams said. “I just decided it was put up or shut up. I’d been asking to do this for years so I said ‘well, I’ll figure it out.’”
Although she knew working out the logistics would be difficult, Williams was confident that the MMPP’s state of the art facilities and enthusiastic undergraduate volunteers could get the job done.
“It was high risk man, you have no idea,” Williams said. “[We] took this endangered animal, brought it to Santa Cruz in the middle of all these budget cuts … it was just like ‘how to get an ulcer.’”
Williams gives much of the credit for avoiding that outcome to her volunteers, to whom “The Odyssey of KP2” is dedicated.
“They are the core of it, and they don’t get paid a cent,” Williams said. “Here they are in the middle of the highest fees and tuition that they’ve ever had before and instead of going out and working at a paying job, they’re dedicating their time to taking care of these animals. I find that just amazing.”
Meagan Davis, a fourth-year marine biology major who has been working with Williams for a little over a year said it has been time well spent.
“Working with the animals has been the most amazing experience, but with that also comes the ability to see the research that comes from it,” Davis said. “These animals are really directed toward a higher purpose.”
The research that came out of KP2’s stay at the MMPP gave Williams a much deeper understanding of how Hawaiian monk seals function, something that’s often overlooked in conservation efforts, Williams said.
Williams discovered that monk seals have several morphological traits that make them well suited to the Hawaiian Islands and nowhere else. From blubber that’s less dense than that of cold water seals to shorter intestines that reflect the need for fewer calories in warmer waters, Williams said monk seal physiology is “locked in” to the Hawaiian Islands.
She was also able to discern the two main threats facing the survival of the monk seals: competition with fishermen and sharks for food, and pollution, which Williams said is a chronic problem in the Hawaiian Islands. She said the monk seals’ natural curiosity makes them uniquely vulnerable to habitat contamination.
“Harbor seals, all you have to do is look at them cross-eyed and they take off in a hurry, but monk seals are the most curious things I’ve ever seen in my life,” Williams said. “They hang out with garbage. If there is a totally clean beach and there’s some piece of garbage, they’re gonna go and they’re gonna lay on it, that’s just what they do … so it’s turning out that they may be a pinniped that goes extinct simply because they’ve rolled around in our garbage. And to me, I find that a crime.”
Davis said that her time at the MMPP has brought home the importance of this sort of research.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot more about the specifics of how conservation works, and it’s helped inspire me to think that it’s really possible,” Davis said.
Williams said activism will play a large role in the survival of monk seals as a species. In addition to reducing pollution in their habitats, she said that the more people who begin to pay attention, the better the monk seal’s chances will become.
“We’re really trying to raise awareness so that the general population of the US understands that this is one more animal that’s key to an ecosystem, a tropical ecosystem and that they have to care,” Williams said. “And if they don’t, they will lose it.”