A pristine Midway Beach meets the blue Pacific.
Peter Pyle, the resident Oceanic Society ornithologist, says that people dream a lot on Midway. It's been suggested, he says, that the soft, round-the-clock clacking and lowing of the island's million albatross keep visitors in REM sleep, the level where dreams wind through the mind. Maybe. But maybe people dream a lot because this tiny atoll, which measures just about one by two miles, is the very stuff of dreams. White sand beaches pour into water that is exactly aquamarine. Dolphins leap from the blue, and three miles from shore a ring of waves breaks over the edge of a circular reef, home to some of the world's most spectacular and endangered species of bird and sea life.
The atoll's human history begins at the turn of the last century. One hundred miles shy of the international date line, halfway between Japan and the U.S. mainland, 1,150 miles northwest of the 50th state, and at the western edge of the northern Hawaiian chain of islands, Midway was used as a station for the first trans-Pacific cable. In the 1930s, it served as a Pan American Clipper stopover for Orient-bound flights. Exactly 58 years ago this June 4, a tide-turning World War II naval battle in the waters and skies around Midway took some 3,057 Japanese and 362 Americans lives.
Today the government's role at Midway is to protect life.
When the navy left in 1997, the two Midway islands—Sand and Eastern—were officially transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates nearly 60 wildlife refuges in the Pacific. But none quite like Midway. Considered the U.S. version of the Galapagos, Midway is the world's largest breeding ground for the Laysan albatross—the one colored like a seagull—and the dark black-footed albatross. Today the atoll is a work in progress. It is the only Pacific Island refuge trying its wings as a refuge and a tourist destination.
Utilitarian military buildings have been turned into a dining hall, bowling alley, and theater. There's a new beachside French restaurant and watering hole. History tours are offered, as are diving, snorkeling, and fishing. Even though only 100 visitors are allowed at a time, Aloha Airlines recently began once-a-week service from Honolulu. And, since Midway opened in 1997, one of the most popular ways to travel there has been with the San Francisco-based Oceanic Society and its "working vacations," on which you can help study the birds and dolphins or help with historic building restoration projects.
At length did cross an Albatross
As our plane touched down on Sand Island in the dark, it swerved to the left, then to the right before rolling to a stop short of the hangar. The pilot came on the intercom to apologize: "We've got a gooney bird that is taking its own sweet time about moving out of the way." Gooney is the pet name for albatross. They are why we are arriving after dark (since most of the birds are bedded down by then), and why we will take off in the dark when we leave. The first thing you learn here is that the wildlife has the right-of-way.
The first thing I did, in my spiffy-clean room, was shut off the air conditioner that was keeping the tropic humidity at bay and open the window. After a dream-filled night in the barracks-turned-hotel (Charlie and Bravo wings), I stepped outside and laughed. The Ancient Mariner would have to rime a whole new story here.
There are plenty of other birds here, and plenty of wildly interesting sea life, but it's hard to remember that on the flat, ironwood tree-covered island. Albatross are everywhere, scattered across green fields and deteriorating tarmacs; shifting barely out of the way as I walk by—and always doing their crazy, constant macarena mating dance. My favorite move: the head dip under the wing to a beak-to-the-sky stretch.
In late winter and early spring, some 400,000 albatross babies are perched in tiny, anthill-like structures all around Midway, waiting for their parents. This wait can last for up to two weeks—the birds have been tracked flying to Alaska and back four times in a month to bring food to their young. As people pass by, the scruffy-looking, eiderdown-covered chicks follow you with their intense eyes as if to say, "Are you my mother?"
In late spring, after being left in the hot sun to fare on their own, the young birds realize they have to move to live, so they stretch out their long wings to learn to fly. This slapstick routine often includes stumbling and tripping; sometimes they land on their faces, sometimes they catapult into the air. Or not. While it seems like such fun, I felt a pang of nature-channel reality when I came across decomposed little bird bodies—often the babies dehydrate before they can learn to fly. What's worse, they can get snatched by sharks in the ocean—it's a whole different skill to take wing from water. According to Pyle, "The saddest thing is that a lot of chicks die from ingesting plastic that their parents pick up in the ocean."
To the delight of naturalists, Midway has become home to a male and a female yellow-headed short-tailed albatross. Pyle says there are only about a thousand of them in the world. But to his frustration and that of preserve manager Rob Shallenberger, the two don't seem interested in each other.
As for other amazing birds: On Eastern Island, where Corsairs and Dauntless dive-bombers once took off from runways that are now crumbling in the sun, male great frigate birds try to impress females by billowing their red throats. Nearby red-footed boobies watch from tree-limb nests. And birders can add Bonin petrels, gray-backed terns, bristle-thighed curlews, and red-tailed tropicbirds to their life lists.
Water, water, everywhere
A liking for birds is a plus, but one doesn't need such a passion to enjoy Midway. The atoll's aquamarine waters are home to a colony of 60 Hawaiian monk seals (there are only 1,000 all told) and 250 spinner dolphins that race into the lagoon every morning. As we crossed the blue water to tour Eastern Island, the dolphins raced in our boat's wake, spinning and flopping in the water. Under the surface, for snorkelers and divers to see, are wild-colored and crazy-striped sea life— sunrise wrasses, mask angelfish, sharks, eagle rays, green sea turtles, and, of course, the coral that is the atoll. Divers can also descend to the wreck of a fighter plane. And, according to Mike Gautreaux, island resort manager, "In the three years that we've been deep-sea fishing here, we've broken 18 records." Out there are amberjack, yellowtail, six species of billfish, and five of tuna, to name a few.
It is because of the rare monk seal's shy nature that only one of Midway's fine white sand beaches is open to the public. As I left Captain Brooks late on my last night, I slipped off my sandals and wandered out on that beach to the water's edge. The moon hung bright in the sky, casting shadows from the smallest of seashells as if it were day. I could have been shipwrecked—there was no one else in sight. After a long while just breathing the salt air, I made my way back to my room, and was lulled to sleep, one last time, by the clacking and lowing of about a million gooney birds.
For information about Oceanic Society trips, call (800) 326-7491 or visit www.oceanic-society.org. For more information, call the Midway Phoenix company at (888) 643-9291 or visit www.midwayisland.com.
Photo by Douglas Peebles
This article was first published in May 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.