Isolated Midway still has creature comforts

Published December 23, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A pair of Laysan albatrosses sing and dance. The birds bond for a lifetime. ©2017 Susan Scott

 

When I mentioned that Craig and I were going to work at Midway counting albatrosses over the holidays, the questions people asked made me realize that few people know anything about the place.

Reasonably so. Midway may be in the Hawaiian Island chain, but it’s 1,200 miles from Oahu. And even though the atoll holds the Battle of Midway National Memorial, is part of the Papa­hanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and has long been Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, the atoll is not included in the state of Hawaii or even the U.S. You need a passport to go there.

Midway, however, is owned by the U.S., its official designation being a “U.S. minor outlying island.” But don’t dust off your passport. Due to funding cuts to the managing agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the atoll is closed to the public.

When the Navy occupied the place, they called it Midway Island, but Midway is a typical atoll. It consists of three islands totaling 2.4 square miles bathed by a lagoon encircled by a coral reef.

Most people who go there are volunteers for Fish and Wildlife, but getting us there is a monumental task. Given the distance and the poorly named Pacific Ocean, going by boat is not an option. The largest island there hosts an airport, managed and staffed by a few Federal Aviation Administration workers. But no commercial planes currently fly to Midway except in emergencies, which is one of the reasons the government keeps the airport facility open and functional.

We volunteers pay our own charter airfare, up to about $2,500 per seat now, as well as our own meals. Housing is in renovated (and charming) World War II-era buildings that provide electricity, Wi-Fi and private bathrooms.

Not being part of the U.S. means that the contracted manager of the atoll’s facilities, Chugach Alaska Corp., can hire foreign nationals. As a result, about 50 Thai workers maintain the facilities that make Midway life so comfy. A chef named Pong manages the buffet-style meals, half Thai and half American. We albatross counters walk 8 to 10 miles per day, but I still gain weight on Pong’s feasts.

Since 1988, Craig and I have been jumping at any chance to work in this glorious wildlife refuge containing millions of albatrosses, Bonin petrels, white terns, green turtles, monk seals and other animals. But not this year. Due to an airplane glitch, 12 of us volunteer counters aren’t going.

The good news is that the six counters who went on an earlier flight report that the million or so albatrosses there are fine and don’t care if we count them or not. (Biologists care, but that’s another story.) Also, Wisdom, Midway’s 67-year-old Laysan albatross, has laid another egg and is looking as fit and beautiful as ever.

Instead of going to Midway, Craig and I will visit the Kaena Point albies and spend the holidays with our ohana here on Oahu. With alternatives like that, it’s hard to be disappointed.

Merry Christmas, dear readers. You make writing this column a continued joy.