Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Day Five (1/17/08) – Getting Oriented to the Middle of Nowhere
by -- January 18th, 2008

We learned about the military and historical significance of Midway and how such a tiny speck in the ocean plays a huge role in preserving threatened bird species.

To orient us to Midway, today was full of talks about different aspects of the island.  Barry Christenson, refuge manager for the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, began by welcoming us to the Battle of Midway National Memorial, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, all of which Midway Atoll has been designated.

After a brief orientation to life on the island, John Klavitter, the wildlife biologist for the refuge, told us everything we wanted to know about the island, from the history of Midway to the flora and fauna found here.  Unlike most other islands in the Pacific, Midway was never inhabited by the Polynesians or other indigenous peoples, though they likely visited the island.  Captain Brooks “discovered” Midway Atoll in 1859 and claimed it for the United States in order to mine guano.  This turned out to be a bust, but Midway remained under U.S. control, with people settling the island periodically.  In 1903, President Roosevelt gave Midway Atoll to the Navy in order to protect the albatross, which was being negatively impacted by settlers who were harvesting feathers and eggs.

Albatross Everywhere

Albatross Everywhere

Fast-forwarding to today, albatrosses are doing extremely well.  Last year, there were more than 440,000 nesting pairs of Laysan albatrosses, and more than 25,000 nesting pairs of blackfooted albatrosses.  Many of these albatrosses had greeted us this morning, when we finally saw clearly what had been making the sounds we were hearing throughout the night.  Laysan albatrosses are everywhere there is unpaved ground, with many sitting patiently on the egg in their nests.  Aside from those two species of albatrosses, there are 16 other species of sea birds which nest on the island.

Laysan Duck

Laysan Duck

The Laysan duck is one of those birds, and a great conservation story.  They initially were on Laysan Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But the environmental conditions were not ideal for the birds and their population was in decline. To create a second population of the birds in case the population on Laysan Island did not rebound, 20 Laysan ducks were introduced to Midway Atoll in 2004, with 20 more introduced in 2005.  With some help from constructed wetlands, the population on Midway Atoll is now more than 200 individuals.  This is an inspiring story for many of us working on conservation of various species, where there is often not such great success at such an early stage.

Barry Christenson took us on a historical tour of the island in the afternoon, pointing out buildings that were built between Captain Brooks’ time and WWII.  Several of the oldest buildings served different purposes as the inhabitants of the island and their reasons for being on Midway changed.  Despite their historical significance, many of these buildings are unfortunately in poor condition and Barry recalled that it is routine for some of the oldest building to suffer damage from storms.

Old Building

Old Building

Those of us who did not know much about the Battle of Midway learned a lot on our tour.  We were told the story of how the Navy had exceptional intelligence and luck in the days leading up to the Battle of Midway which allowed them to defeat the Japanese.  Though those in the war may not have known it at the time, history has shown that the Battle of Midway was a significant turning point in World War II.

Throughout the day it became striking that such a small remote island is so historically and ecologically significant.  I am certainly looking forward to being able to explore and learn more throughout our stay here.

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