Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (1994-95)

Up until 2008, our adventures were retained only as memories and on Kodachromes. While our memories may have faded (just a bit), the Kodachromes haven’t – and we have a lot of them. So we’re digitizing a select few to bring some of our past adventures into the 21st Century. This is one of those.

Midway is a circular coral atoll located in the Hawaiian Archipelago about 1,100 miles northwest of Oahu, Hawaii. Although it’s in the archipelago, Midway is not technically part of the State of Hawaii.

Midway Atoll is in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands (NWHI)

The atoll consists of two main islands, Sand and Eastern, totaling three square miles in area, with several smaller islets enclosed within a reef approximately five miles in diameter.

Midway from above (U.S. Navy photo)

It is best remembered for its starring role in the historic Battle of Midway.  On June 4, 1942, an Imperial Japanese Navy armada including four aircraft carriers attempted to capture Midway and its landing strip, as the first step toward a second assault on the Hawaiian Islands.  An outnumbered American task force succeeded (in large part because we’d been able to decipher much of the Japanese naval code) in both repulsing the invasion and sinking all four Japanese aircraft carriers. This marked a decisive turning point in the Pacific Theater during WW2.

The atoll served as a Naval facility from 1942 until 1997.  At that time, after extensive de-militarization and clean-up, the U.S. Navy ceded control of it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial.  It was open to tourists (mostly birders) for a few years but since 2012 has been closed to public visitation.  Only activities that directly support airfield operations and conservation management are permitted.

Albatross flying over Midway with the old fuel depot in the distance

However, in 1994 and 1995, I was fortunate to be able to spend time on Midway working on the clean-up.

Midway Atoll NWR before it was fully ceded to the Fish & Wildlife Service

I was there during the peak of the Laysan albatross nesting and hatching season and Sand Island was pretty much covered with nests – thousands and thousands and thousands of them!  The Laysan is a very elegant bird with beautifully shaded coloration. On one occasion we were lucky to see a Golden albatross with its distinctive golden, yellow head and nape.

Nesting albatross’ dot the old parade ground
And yet more nesting albatross’
An affectionate couple with egg
The nest is as wide as her beak can reach – here it’s sand
And here the nest is clipped grass

The birds are free to nest almost wherever they like (except the runways) and one took up residence next to the entry to our quarters. Not a problem as long as you remembered she was there and steered clear of her beak!

Albatross nesting next to the BOQ’s entry door

On a less happy note, we would often find on the beaches the remains of dead birds surrounding a pile of plastic trash, quite often Bic lighters. The birds would mistake the shiny chrome top of the lighter (or any other reflective bit of plastic) for a silvery fish and get plastic instead of a meal. Only now, some 25 years later, are we all waking up to what a huge problem plastic is for the oceans and for us. Think of these plastic-choked seabirds from long ago as canaries in the coal mine. 😦

On other visits, I caught the nesting season for Red-tailed Tropicbirds and White Terns, with their super cute, fuzzy little chicks. These terns don’t build nests built and instead lay a single egg in a small depression on a branch, roof or other surface. Once out of the shell, tern chicks have to hang on for dear life!

Nesting Red-tailed Tropicbird
White Tern chick clinging to a branch

I also sighted some Hawaiian monk seals (endangered) lolling on the beach on Eastern Island. We removed several hundred tons of old military structures from this island, some dating back to before WW2.

A monk seal on the beach
Monk seals napping on Eastern Island next to lost fishing gear that washed ashore

All in all, one of those rare times when work took me to a place that is truly a paradise. 😀

On the beach at Midway
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