The Strange—but Necessary—Task of Vaccinating Wild Seals

June 01, 2016 - How do you give a wild marine mammal a shot? Very carefully. Sneaking up on Hawaiian monk seals on beaches and in tide pools, biologists from the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program are vaccinating a select group of seals to protect them from a virus that may one day reach Hawaii. Although to date morbillivirus has not been found in seals on Oahu, there's a risk that it may arrive. Because the endangered seals—with a population of only about 1,200 to 1,300—have no immunity to the virus, an outbreak could devastate the species. Morbillivirus, which causes measles in humans, has been implicated in a mass die-off of Mediterranean monk seals.

In 2016 the team will aim to vaccinate 25 seals on Oahu. To reach the Hawaiian monk seals, the biologists drive to all corners of the island and hike down to the beaches where the animals have been spotted. Each seal must be pricked twice, once with the vaccine and then with a follow-up booster shot several weeks later. The NOAA team believes that vaccinating a certain number of seals offers a good chance of preventing a potentially catastrophic spread should morbillivirus find its way to the Hawaiian Islands.