On a sunny morning late last month, I boarded the Gulfstream G3 and left Midway Atoll, this time maybe for good. Eighteen months had gone by pretty quickly and my brain swirled with a flurry of hard-to-pin-down emotions as I peered out the window of the plane at the little cluster of islands that I’d called home during that time. Sure, I was glad to be heading back to my home in Enterprise, Oregon to reconnect with my wife and friends there after being gone so long; and I was also relieved to be able to leave what had become a toxic work environment due to the malfeasance of a couple of people. But I also knew that there was something very precious about having had the opportunity to live in such a remote and (literally) fantastic place where wildlife not only abounds but also show no fear of humans, thus allowing one to become a part of their world.
In this blog, I’ve written about some of the spectacular wildlife species that live on Midway (yes, I know that albatrosses were possibly favored) and also detailed other aspects of the natural and human history there. But there are so many interesting things I haven’t gotten around to writing about so I thought, for this final entry, I’d at least try to touch on some of them briefly. I offer this to you as an alternative to some sappy, poorly conceived, summary of my experiences there. If nothing else, it will be easier to write.
Death on Midway – People have met their demise on Midway in a variety of ways. Some were famous and gave their lives to an important cause. This was the case of Marine Lt George Cannon who, despite severe injuries, continued at his post as Japanese warplanes attacked during WWII. Others lost their lives in less noble circumstances. Take the case of the fisherman who blew his arm off dynamite fishing on the reef. Or the infamous Captain Jorgensen who, after wrecking his ship, began killing off his crew until they built a boat and sailed off without him. I also heard the tale of a physician on the island who developed appendicitis and died after attempting to remove his own appendix. There is a small cemetery on Midway known as the “Doctors Cemetery”, which was the final resting place for a half dozen or so physicians that lived on Midway. Why only physicians? Because if someone died, the physician (typically there was only one), would embalm the body so that it could be shipped back to wherever it was the deceased person had come from. But what if you were the physician? Then this option was not available and the unembalmed body had to be buried on Midway. No one plans to live out their last days on Midway. In fact, to go there, you typically have to be in reasonably good health so as to avoid emergency medical situations. Given this, nearly everyone that meets their end on the atoll does so in a tragic way. Just a few years back, a recently hired worker (one of the many men from Thailand) decided to try out kayaking but had been given no safety training. He drowned right off the beach when his boat capsized and, because he had strapped himself into the boat, could not right himself.
|Red-tailed tropicbird on nest|
Red-tailed tropicbirds – These are amazing seabirds that, for some reason, have two very long, thin red tail-feathers and are known for their ability to fly backwards – something I read about long before I actually saw them do it. Red-tailed tropicbirds, sometimes called “Bosun Birds”, nest on the ground under shrubs or trees and, although – or perhaps because – they are very strong fliers, they can’t really walk. So, when a tropicbird decides to take to the sky it has to haul itself out into the open, using its wings like seal uses its front flippers, where it then launches itself into the air with brute force. When a tropicbird needs to land, it does so by making a very steep descent, feet first, and then makes what might best be described as a “controlled crash landing”. If you walk too close to a tropicbird that’s sitting on the ground, it will give an extremely loud, harsh cry, which can be so startling as to make your heart stop. But my favorite thing about the tropicbird is the sublime color of their feathers at the start of the breeding season. During most of the year they appear entirely bright white except for their tail. When they first return to the atoll in the spring though, the white in their feathers seems to be infused with a pearly, pink luster which makes them exceptionally beautiful.
|Sand painting by Nai DeGracia|
Hidden Talents – Midway has a pretty small population of semi-permanent residents that is made up of a mix of about 35 to 40 longer-term residents (mostly Thai men) that work for the contractor, Chugach Alaska Corp, which basically runs the place. Added to this are 10 or so Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) staff and volunteers whose terms last 6 months to a few years. Hidden within this tiny community are a remarkable number of diverse, and surprising talents, many of which are revealed only well into an evening of reverie. Narongkorn Tassananggulla, also known as Ae2, is an electrician by day, but in the evening, you might find him playing the guitar or ukulele. He does a very convincing rendition of Neil Young’s song Heart of Gold for which he also sings and plays the harmonica. That beautiful painting of an albatross on his golf cart? He did that! Meg Duhr-Schultz was a biologist at Midway but also possessed exceptional mixology skills and frequently hosted cocktail parties where she’d test out her recipes on guests. She employed local ingredients, such as Thai basil and chile, to make infusions and bitters. I remember one cocktail made with duck-fat butter, bourbon, and herbs. Nai DeGracia, a FWS volunteer who ran the native plant nursery, was known for her excellent tattooing skills and many a visitor left with the image of tropicbird or albatross on their skin. Preecha Songserm, aka “Sam”, was a weed control technician who was also, ironically perhaps, a master at flower arranging and a fabulous Thai cook. For special occasions, JR Roberson, the Logistics Manager, would always arrive in some fantastic, colorful outfit composed from his extensive and diverse wardrobe. Eric Baker, another FWS volunteer, was not only a very capable seabird biologist, but also a fantastic photographer (he shot only film) and also a superb painter and scientific illustrator. On weekends, Surasak Fakkaew (known as “Sak”) takes a break from his regular job to cut hair at Midway’s barber shop. Writing a complete account of all the amazing talent on Midway would be a serious undertaking!
|Snorkeling at the sunken water barge|
The Lagoon and the Reef – Midway Atoll is probably 95% ocean, though I’m guessing that over 90% of my time there was spent on land and my blog posts had a decidedly terrestrial focus. Beyond the three small islands land there is extensive lagoon – a shallow, turquoise, crystal-clear sea bounded by the remnants of an ancient coral reef. It is a color so powerful it can turn the clouds above it from white to emerald green. Snorkeling the reefs of Midway certainly was a highlight of my time there. Some coral is purple, others yellow or orange. Swimming among the corals were dozens of species of fishes, large and small, and in an amazing array of colors. An occasional lobster, eel, or seal made things even more interesting. And then there was the “Water Barge”, wrecked on reef sometime in decades past, now lying in about 50 feet of water on the edge of a channel. We snorkeled there on a very calm day in the summer of 2016, diving down to its large anchor – this baby ain’t going nowhere! On the way back, we might encounter a pod of Spinner Dolphins, which would often follow the boat for reasons we could only guess at.
Exotic Birds – Midway has no native songbird species but over the years people have brought in birds from other places. Atlantic Canary and Common Myna are two species which have become established due to such efforts. Many people are familiar with canaries, small finchlike birds native to the Canary Islands, known for their beautiful songs and often kept as pets. A Mr. D Morrison, purchased some canaries in Honolulu in 1909 and brought them to Midway. These birds now thrive on Midway eating a variety of seeds from native and domestic plants and nesting wherever they can find a suitable place. The corner pocket of a pool table for example! Much could be written about these interesting birds and how they have acclimatized to this remote atoll! Mynas came much later, after World War II. The first things I noticed about these birds was their habit of picking at the carcasses of albatross chicks. For meat or insects? I have never been sure. They are also opportunistic with regards to the placement of their nests – there was a pair nesting in the garage of the office this past summer and they would sometimes get annoyed with Laysan Ducks that wandered in there and would chase them around, pecking at them violently. I have also witnessed brutal fights between mynas in which a group of birds attacked a lone bird, pecking it and pressing it into the sand so hard I thought they might kill it. The third exotic bird species at Midway is the Cattle Egret. How it got to Midway is anyone’s guess, but the leading theory is that it got there on its own from the mainland (where it was introduced).
|Short-tailed albatross on Midway Atoll|
The Golden Gooney – Of the three species of albatrosses known to nest at Midway, it is the Short-tailed Albatross, known also as the Golden Gooney, that is the most rare and holds the greatest mystique. This albatross nests primarily on islands off the southeastern coast of Japan – primarily Torishima Island – and has had its numbers decimated through both human exploitation and having the bad luck to have one of its biggest nesting populations wiped out by a volcanic eruption. Short-tailed albatross had been seen on Midway since the 1940s, but it wasn’t until 2010 that birds were observed nesting. Unfortunately, one of the birds in the pair died and a single lone bird returned to Midway in subsequent years but seemed unable to attract a mate. Last winter this lone bird seemed to have found a friend – perhaps a young female? – and there is great hope that they will return this winter to raise a chick.
|Midway's fancy fire truck (called the "Big Green Mama" by some) is a critical piece of aviation safety equipment|
Henderson Air Field – Midway Atoll is a wildlife refuge, a national historical monument, and an airport capable of landing a 747 at any time. Henderson Air Field is the only public airport for over 1000 miles and is used as an emergency landing site for commercial aircraft that get into trouble while travelling en route from Asia to North America. The last time this happened was 2014 when someone smelled smoke on United Airlines flight UA-201 on its way from Honolulu to Guam. It’s also used by the US Coast Guard for training missions, sometimes to allow the pilot to practice landing without any runway lights. Just four people keep the airport going at Midway, doing everything from spraying weeds on the runway to conducting emergency response drills.
|Each year tons of plastic debris washes up on the shores of Midway Atoll|
The Plastic Problem – Every day garbage washes up on Midway’s reefs and beaches. Most of this is plastic which has found its way into the ocean and swirls around in giant “garbage patches” until it finds its way onto land. Plastic isn’t just an aestheticproblem. It is ingested by all manner of ocean creature, including albatrossesand other seabirds. Plastic ends up in the stomachs of fast-growing albatross chicks and may constitute over 90% of the indigestible material that they consume. How plastic affects the health of albatrosses or other marine organisms is not known but the fact that some albatross chicks are literally filled with plastic when they die is in indicator that the situation is not good. How much plastic do you throw out? Would seeing an albatross regurgitate a toothbrush, or a hypodermic needle, make you rethink your relationship to plastic?
|Map of Sand Island created for tourists visiting Midway on the China Clipper in the 1930s.|
The Clipper Era – The early twentieth century was one of rapid change on Midway, and a period of time I find especially interesting, especially the mid to late 1930s when Pan-American Airways established a tourism site on Midway, which was one of several stops along a Trans-Pacific route that included Honolulu and Guam. Passengers crossed the ocean in large, luxury seaplanes called “Clippers”. Various facilities were built for the tourists including a hotel with a restaurant (the “Gooneyville Lodge”) and tennis courts. The only other human inhabitants of Midway at the time were resident workers of the Pacific Commercial Cable Company, which, operated the trans-Pacific telegraph cable station. It is really hard to imagine what it would be like to visit Midway during those times, but it must have been idyllic.
|Laysan ducks at "Catchment" on Midway Atoll|
Laysan Duck – No native duck ever lived on Midway, probably because the atoll had no surface freshwater. Laysan Duck, a native of Laysan Island, which lies about 700 miles southeast of Midway, prospered there until 1894 when a well-meaning person named Max Schlemmer brought rabbits to the island. The rabbits did what rabbits do and after a couple of decades had consumed every blade of grass and anything else they could find to eat. That wasn’t great for the ducks which were nearly driven to extinction. Decades later, in 2004, the Laysan Duck was introduced to Midway Atoll as a precautionary measure. To accommodate the ducks, many artificial ponds and wetlands have been created for them. The birds have done well at Midway and can be seen nearly everywhere on Sand Island, though botulism remains a problem. After a heavy rain, it is not uncommon to see a hen with its brood of chicks splashing around in a puddle alongside a road.
Farewell and A Hui Hou!