Lonely Planet Writer

An island that was a haven for endangered species has disappeared

A Hawaiian island that was a habitat for critically endangered monk seals and threatened green sea turtles has completely disappeared after a storm surge from Hurricane Walaka washed it away.

Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi ). Image by Sylvain Cordier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Image

East Island was considered an ecological gem, an 11-acre island located just 550 miles (490km) northwest of Honolulu, Oahu. It was a habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals and threatened green sea turtles. The island formed part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (a UNESCO World Heritage site that became the largest marine conservation area in the world when the Obama administration expanded it in 2016). Up to 96% of Hawaii’s green sea turtles nest in the monument’s French Frigate Shoals (a 67-acre coral reef) and over half of those were on East Island.

East Island, Hawaii before and after Hurricane Walaka. Image by US Fish and Wildlife Service

The low-lying island was submerged by a storm surge from Hurricane Walaka that dispersed its sands onto the surrounding reef. The storm was one of the most intense Pacific hurricanes on record and reached Category 5 in early October. Satellite images from the US Fish and Wildlife Service show that East Island now is almost entirely underwater. While it’s too early to attribute the island’s disappearance to climate change, researchers from the University of Hawaii said the island had already been under threat from rising sea levels.

Dr. Charles (Chip) Fletcher, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Hawaii, said the island was “absolutely critical” to the Hawaiian green sea turtles and monk seals, despite its small size. Now these animals will have to search for a new habitat. “There are very few other low atoll islands left and they are at risk,” Dr Fletcher told Lonely Planet. “These animals may turn to the south, along the beaches of the main Hawaiian islands and many of these beaches are lined with seawalls and do not provide sufficient habitat. There are some open coasts in the main islands, these need to be protected and expanded.”

Officials from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) flew over the area to photograph it and are currently assessing the impact of the storm. The long-term implications are still unclear but the the loss of the island will have a significant impact on future nesting and pupping cycles.

Speaking to Lonely Planet, Charles Littnan from the NOAA said that the loss of East Island “provides us with an opportunity to see how animals may be able to respond to projected habitat loss related to climate change in the future and help inform how we may need to manage the species.” Mr Littnan said the NOAA team will travel to the area to monitor how the monk seals and green sea turtles respond to this change and “ensure that the populations are doing okay.”

Green sea turtle swimming over coral reef underwater in Maui, Hawaii. Image by ©M Swiet Productions/Getty Images

The Hawaiian monk seal is a critically endangered species of earless seal with a population of 1400. Green sea turtles in the US are listed as threatened but outside the US they are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, there are approximately 85,000 and 90,000 nesting females worldwide.