In images of the island after the storm, Littnan said he could already see that some monk seals had returned and hauled themselves onto the 150-foot-long patch of sand that remained.
Clark, the NOAA superintendent for the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which includes the French Frigate Shoals, said no one immediately realized the island had largely disappeared because it is so remote. The footage was given to understand that one of the Islands - the East has completely disappeared under the water.
The extent of the ecological damage and whether the island will ever return is still unknown, but about a seventh of the entire population of Hawaiian monk seals-one of the most endangered marine mammals-was born on East Island, and more than half of all Hawaiian green sea turtles-which are classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act-had nested on it.
Located about 500 miles (800 kilometers) northwest of Honolulu, East Island was the second largest islet in an atoll known as the French Frigate Shoals.
In addition to the swamped East Island, the aerial survey showed "alterations" to neighbouring Tern Island. They were trying to determine the age of the island and determine its future, particularly in regard to climate change.
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"Our understanding is that these islands are formed as sea level falls", Fletcher said.
In the right conditions, an atoll like French Frigate Shoals is always at risk when a hurricane hits.
The scientists were in the middle of researching the island, using drones and sand samples to estimate how much longer it could survive due to climate change. (Supplied) The aerial photo of the Hawaii East Island shows how it became nearly completely submerged after the hurricane. "It's not a hoax propagated in China as some folks have said", an apparent reference to President Donald Trump's remarks that resurfaced during his campaign. Each year about 200 of the seals visit East Island, and about 30 seals have their pups there, Littnan estimated, noting that there are only about 1,400 of the animals in the world.
He added that "species are resilient up to a point". "Based on the data, managers will determine next steps and management actions".