Thursday, June 16, 2016

Not Very Gooney at All Actually

An appreciation for the Laysan Albatross

The indigenous people of Hawaii call this bird “Moli”. To scientists it’s Phoebastria immutabilis. But at some point in recent history someone called an albatross a “gooney bird” and the name has stuck. It’s not a very kind name, implying foolish, silly, or awkwardNames matter (just ask anyone belonging to what might be considered a “minority group”) and over time I think the reputation of the Laysan Albatross has suffered as people – English speakers at least – have tended to focus on its less elegant aspects while downplaying the truly astonishing characteristics that define this magnificent seabird species. Here I hope is to disabuse you of the notion that these birds are “gooney” at all and tell you why I think they deserve your respect if not awe.

Laysan Albatross are often called "Gooneybirds" and characterized as being silly or clumsy.

Laysan albatross is one of 21 species of albatrosses and range across a wide swath of the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Mexico. Despite this large range they nest on just a few isolated islands. Here on Midway Atoll, the bird is extremely abundant with about 450,000 breeding pairs documented at last count, comprising approximately 75% of the global population.

Laysan albatross nest on just a few remote islands but forage across a very wide swath of the Pacific Ocean extending from Japan to California and from the equator to the Aleutian Islands.

Albatrosses have been around for millions of years and have evolved to do one thing extremely well, to survive by harvesting resources that are spread across thousands of miles of open ocean.  Like all birds though, reproduction requires dry land. And in the case of albatrosses they require places without mammalian or reptilian predators because they nest on the ground and their chicks are very tasty (we know this from the records of early sea voyages) and extremely vulnerable to hungry mouths. Well it turns out that land free of predators is a pretty scarce commodity. Every continent as well as the islands that lie offshore team with primates (us included), dogs, cats, weasels, snakes, and the like. So albatrosses have had to resort to raising their young on remote islands where no land predator has ever made landfall. For Laysan Albatross these have included the Hawaiian islands, and a few islands off the coast of Mexico and Japan. One the Polynesians settled the main Hawaiian islands, the albatrosses were dispatched quickly.

It turns out though, by accident of geologic history, that the only suitable islands for nesting happened to be located in parts of the ocean that weren’t especially rich when it comes to food. So during the breeding season (which lasts for months) the Laysan Albatross must travel far to find the squid, fish eggs, crustaceans, and carrion it needs to survive. To manage this it evolved extraordinary flying abilities. Albatrosses, have very long wings that "lock" into place and utilize a technique called Dynamic Soaring which exploits wind gradients and allows them to fly great distances using very little energy. An albatross can spend months on end in nearly continuous flight as it pursues food over many thousands of miles of open ocean.

Masters of the air!  A typical Laysan Albatross flies over a million miles during its lifetime utilizing a technique called "dynamic soaring".
These abilities come at some cost to the bird when it comes time to land.  It's not uncommon for an albatross to land hard, sometimes even flipping over, if the winds shift suddenly during its approach. Takeoffs can be tricky too as an albatross cannot generate much lift by simply flapping its wings and has to get a running start into the wind to resume flight.  But before you start laughing at a Laysan albatross after suffers a crash landing, think about the fact that the bird may have just returned from several weeks or months at sea surviving gale force winds, rain, and snow.

Laysan Albatross are very long-lived birds that spend up to their first 9 years learning how to make their way in the world before settling on a mate and attempting to raise its first chick. They are monogamous and put a great deal of effort into finding the “right one” which entails a fairly elaborate courtship ritual involving of dancing, bill clapping, braying, screaming and other interesting behaviors. People watching young albatross in the heat of passion often find it “gooney” but ask yourself this: if an alien being were to evaluate you solely on your behavior in the bedroom, how do you think you'd come across?

Laysan Albatross engage in extensive courtship rituals and mate for life.

Once a Laysan Albatross finds the love of its life the pair takes on the monumental task of raising a chick. After the egg is laid both female and male share the task of incubation which lasts about two months. A parent may sit on the nest for two weeks straight waiting for relief from its mate all the while not eating or drinking. After hatching comes the daunting task of feeding the ravenous chick. Again the responsibility is shared by both parents and each undertakes epic journeys far into the ocean to gather enough food to provision the fast growing nestling. A study of Laysan Albatross using global positioning systems and satellite transmitters discovered that one female albatross spent 29 days at sea travelling over 7,500 miles on a single foraging excursion. And they don’t do this once but many times across their long lives. The longest living wild bird known is a 65 year old Laysan Albatross female living on Midway Atoll. This year "Wisdom" as she has been named, nested perhaps for the 30th time (albatrosses lay just one egg and typically do not breed every year) and is currently raising a healthy chick. Imagine the hundreds of thousands of miles that she has traveled and the things she has seen across the decades. The dedication that albatrosses show for their families is impressive and inspiring. The word “gooney” just doesn’t seem a good fit.

Dedicated parents. Both male and female Laysan Albatross travel tens of thousands of miles to find food for their offspring. Partially digested food and oils are regurgitated into the chicks bill.

In all fairness, I think that most people who call albatrosses “gooneybirds” do so with no disrespect. In fact, when I arrived here on Midway I used the term a few times thinking it kind of cute. But I also believe it's possible that this epithet has at times made it easier for people to do things that caused serious harm to Laysan Albatrosses. While describing the myriad ways that albatrosses have suffered at the hands of humans is a topic too large to tackle here (look forward to that in a later post) suffice it to say that when Midway and other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were being developed for military use, albatrosses were inconvenient and many were killed to make way for the roads, building, and aviation facilities that were constructed. Maybe by calling them “gooneybirds” it was a little easier to ignore the suffering we caused them.

Maybe now though it’s time for a more honest reckoning. If, indeed, Laysan Albatross are “gooney” at all it’s only when they are on land. And since research shows they spend about 95% of their lives at sea where they are magnificent, graceful creatures then that would mean they are “gooney” at most about 5% of the time. Not very gooney at all actually!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Food and Beverage

The challenge of staying well-nourished on a desert island

There is a good reason why Midway Atoll was never settled by the Polynesian inhabitants of the main Hawaiian Islands. The three small islands together make up just a little over 2 square miles in land area, have no freshwater lakes or rivers, are mantled with fine white coral sand not well suited for agriculture, and are over 1,000 miles from the main Hawaiian Islands (the closest place that could be considered “civilization”).  The first people to attempt to inhabit the atoll, employees of the Pacific Commercial Cable Company, were provisioned by ship and dug wells to provide fresh water (interestingly, small coral atolls though lacking in fresh surface water often contain a thin sub-surface “lens” of freshwater that resulting from it having a lower density than seawater).  It turned out though that food delivery by ship was pretty unreliable. During those times Midway lacked a harbor or pier and the coral reefs that surround the islands made landings difficult, especially during inclement weather. Supply ships frequently turned back before making their deliveries or, worse, wrecked, leaving the island's residents hungry and frustrated. It didn’t take long for the Cable Company employees to take matters into their own hands and soon they were importing soil, plants, and livestock to grow food on their own and reduce their dependence on the outside world for their provisions.

Despite all of the development that has occurred at Midway since that time, keeping the current residents – 50 or so folks at any given time – hydrated and nourished is still a major challenge. The small wells that provided freshwater to early inhabitants could not satisfy the demand once the island’s population swelled to several thousand during World War II; during these times efforts were made to capture rainfall (Midway receives approximately 43 inches a year) and store it in cisterns. Today, the large runway of Henderson Field  (approximately 7,800 feet long and 150 feet wide) on Sand Island is used for this purpose.  Rainwater falling on the runway flows into grates and is then pumped into three, 4 million gallon water tanks.

Three large tanks allow for storage of 12 million gallons of water on Sand Island, Midway Atoll (Laysan ducks in the foreground enjoy puddles created by a rainstorm).

From there some of the water is sent to an elevated water tank to for irrigation, fire hydrants, and other uses which do not require the water to be purified. The remainder goes to Sand Island’s water treatment plant which uses chemical sterilizers (something akin to chlorine) to purify the water for domestic use. Though the water coming out of the taps in houses and offices is potable, many people (including me), prefer some additional purification before drinking.  A small water and ice house next to Charlie Barracks is open 24/7 providing double filtered water and ice cubes  a fabulous amenity!

What about food?  Similar to residents over a hundred years ago, the folks living here rely almost entirely on food brought in from the outside world but fortunately the deliveries are now much more reliable. Food is transported to Midway by both ship and aircraft.  Every six months the privately operated 185 ft supply vessel M/V Kahana, delivers a load of food, fuel, and other supplies to the atoll.  This is how sacks of rice, canned food, cases of soda pop, and other heavy, non-perishable items make it out here. Quantities of frozen foods are also delivered in a refrigerated container. Supplementing this are deliveries made via air. Every two weeks or so, a small chartered jet makes the round trip from Honolulu to Midway carrying with it 12 passengers along with mail and various cargo which includes various fresh foods including fruits and vegetables. The couple of days following a flight are always exciting for this reason, as suddenly fresh blueberries appear replacing the previous week’s regimen of canned fruit.

As in times past, today’s Midway residents find it worth their while to raise some of their own food locally. A large greenhouse stands just to the east of the Chugach building. Inside is a modern hydroponic garden where Sumeth “Hin” Camseecha raises a wide variety of vegetables, including lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and Thai chiles. There is also an outdoor Community Garden which serves multiple purposes. Anyone wishing to grow their favorite foodcrop can plant it here (as long as it’s not an invasive species) but this is also an important gathering place. This is the source of some key ingredients used in Thai cooking on the island including kaffir lime and lemongrass. On Friday afternoons I always try to stop for a beer when  Adoon Sripitak, the unofficial master of the garden, hosts weekly get-togethers which are attended by a diversity of island residents.

Residents of Midway Atoll are lucky to have local, fresh produce to supplement their diet. Top: A bountiful crop of greens being grown in the hydroponic greenhouse; Bottom: Friday afternoon at the Community Garden. 

So now you know where the food comes from but how does it get transformed from raw ingredient to the plate? The Clipper House is the island’s only and best restaurant. Open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Pongsakorn “Pong” Wichaisawatdi and his three assistants cook up a tasty variety of foods appealing to both American and Thai palletes. It is hard to imagine Midway without the Clipper House as it is truly the social hub of the island as pretty much everybody takes at least some of their meals here. It is truly the only game in town but I find the eclectic mix of Thai, “American”, Italian, and other cuisines to be extremely appealing and my appreciation for Thai food continues to grow (I am still, however, very partial to the coconut curry dishes with Chicken Coconut Curry still occupying the number one spot). Mixing is not uncommon and the other day I saw someone eating a Chicago Style Hotdog with Pad Thai tossed on top as a finishing touch.

The Clipper House Restaurant at Midway Atoll where head chef Pongsakorn “Pong” Wichaisawatdi serves a variety of dishes to suit the tastes of patrons from both the United States and Thailand. An outside patio with a fine view of the lagoon is popular with US Fish and Wildlife Service staff and volunteers.
The only other source for food on the island is the Ship’s Store which has snack foods, some frozen foods and most crucially a selection of beer, wine, and liquor.  Unfortunately, the beer selection has not kept up with the times and only American Pilseners (read Bud, Coors) and two brands of Thai beer are offered (Chang and Singha). A co-worker asked me the other day if I'd noticed the cabinet with the sign saying "fine wines". No I hadn't, I replied.  "It's empty" she explained with some disappointment.  Those with more eclectic tastes must rely on care packages from home (Oregon IPA please!). These days with the ease of ordering food via mail, some islanders also supplement their diet through or other outlets. It is also possible to special order certain fresh, refrigerated, and frozen foods through the Ship’s Store and I have taken advantage of this getting fresh fruit and plain Greek yoghurt for breakfast.

While no one is ever going to starve on Midway, the limited availability of some foods still takes some adjusting. Also a consideration are the limited hours of the Clipper House which don’t always jibe with when I am hungry.  I have taken to making my own breakfasts (which includes real, whole-bean organic Arabica coffee mailed to me from Eugene, Oregon, rice cakes from, and fresh foods acquired from the Ship’s Store) and doing take out for dinner (5 pm is a little early for me). All in all though I certainly can’t complain.  Compared to the folks living here a hundred years ago, my food options are almost unimaginably varied and I have enjoyed the free time I have acquired since coming here that otherwise would be spent in the kitchen, not to mention the opportunity to sample some very fine Thai food. If anything, life on Midway could lead one to become "overnourished" making it even more important to stay active and get plenty of excercise. That'll be the topic of a future post!