Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Midway (Thurs., 1/21/10) – Welcome to Midway!
by -- January 23rd, 2010

The one thing that strikes me the most in Midway, after the outstanding number of albatrosses, is the infrastructure.

Albatross Everywhere!

Albatross Everywhere!

Our first morning in Midway, we wake up to the sound of thousands of albatrosses and as I take a walk outside our barracks, I discover a field completely pebbled with little white heads. Clashing with this impressive picture is the human presence on the island.

We are literally midway between the American and the Asian continents, right in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. It took us 5 hours to fly here from Oahu, and yet, this place is equipped with many buildings (some being used and some abandoned), trails, a dining hall that looks like a restaurant… and a bowling alley, mind you!

There was a time in the 1940s in which the population of the island reached 5,000 people (around 1,000 more people than Beaufort, NC, my current home). Now its population is around 80 people and it is mostly staff from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

After a good breakfast we head out to the visitors center where Tracey Ammerman, the Visitors’ Services Manager, gave us an orientation on safety, history, culture and natural history of Midway. One piece of information that really got my attention is that albatrosses bring back 5 metric tons of plastic each year from the ocean! They inadvertently swallow it when they feed and then transmit it to their chicks when they regurgitate their food. The chicks eventually regurgitate everything they don’t digest in the form of a bolus, and every bolus contains plastic. When an adult albatross dies and its body decomposes, the pieces of plastic in its stomach stay on the island, so if you take a walk around you will find little pieces of plastic, lighters, toothbrushes and plastic caps.

Tracey Ammerman, the Visitors’ Services Manager, tells us about plastic on the island

Tracey Ammerman, the Visitors’ Services Manager, tells us about plastic on the island

We then got assigned our bikes, which will be our means of transportation while we are on the island and finally, we had a little time to do some exploring by ourselves. I felt this time was like when you enter a very dark room after being outside: you can’t see anything. However, little by little, your eyes get accustomed to the new amount of light and suddenly you see. At first, I could only see albatrosses. It is normal I guess, Midway being the largest Laysan albatross colony in the world (428,090 breeding pairs of albatrosses, not counting chicks nor juveniles), but after a while, my eyes started looking at more and more details. I spotted several white terns, 6 Laysan ducks, various black-footed albatrosses and then I started noticing the plastic on the ground. Lots of plastic. It’s scary.

After lunch we went for a tour around the island with Tracey. We saw the buildings, we listened to the stories. I am still blown away by how well the human community and the albatrosses coexist, which made me wonder about sustainability on the island.

Tracey Ammerman

Tracey Ammerman

Tracey told us about how the island has 2 small generators that use fuel to generate electricity and how this has been reduced from 1000 gallons of fuel a day (at the height of 1940s) to around 300 gallons a day now. The fuel gets to the island either by barge or cargo ship and they have a fuel farm, where it is stored.

All the water in the island comes from rain. Midway has 3 tanks, each with a capacity of 4.2 million gallons. The water is then filtered for consumption. The island has both potable and non-potable water. In the residences, offices and dining hall they have potable water, whereas in the boathouse and in the hydrants (Midway has many!) the water is non-potable.

Although most of their fruits and vegetables come from other places like Honolulu, they now have ahydroponic garden where they have things like tomatoes, lettuce, and basil (integral to the Thai cuisine that is served in the island).

The community in Midway is doing really well in recycling. Everywhere you find different bins for all recyclable materials like glass, plastic bottles and aluminum cans. They even have a machine that extracts the gas of fluorescent lights so they can recycle those as well. Tracey told me that what they get for the recycling of aluminum cans goes to the ‘moral, welfare and recreation’ club and it is used for the community that lives here in Midway, weather to buy equipment for the gym (oh yeah, they have a fitness center), food and beverages for Christmas or the Thai new year. This has created an incentive for the community to recycle.

After today, it is very clear to me that Midway is a very special place. The juxtaposition of an albatross community and a human community is extremely interesting; I have never seen anything like this in my life. Midway is remote, but by no means is it desolate.

7 Comments

  1. Andrea Sanchez
    Jan 26, 2010

    It’s really interesting to read this and imagine something completely different to what I see in my city – Mexico City- … I see everything BUT albatrosses, I wish I could, and I wish we mexicans had the same green actions and responsability to the Earth as they do… I love to learn this new things and live it through this words.

    Looking forward to read more advenrures in Midway!!!

    Greetings!
    Andrea

  2. Gurpreet Neeraj
    Jan 26, 2010

    No doubt you guys are having a great experience and an amazing time out there. The story of accumulating plastic on the island is fascinating, never heard that one before. But any ideas on why this place has had less people over the years? From 5k to just 80. Is it the remoteness of the place or may be its just that the albatrosses have taken over!! Would be very expensive though, getting all the stuff imported. Should start their own little economy out there, and that too a sustainable one.

    Another quick question. It appears that there is a lot of Thai presence out there. IS this place in any way close to the place? (Unless I am missing a point here!).
    But you guys doing a great job!!
    Carry on
    ~G

  3. Fernando Aznar Leon de la Barra
    Jan 28, 2010

    This Is amazing. The way you see things, The comparison that you manage to make between your world and a world that makes a rural life look like the right way to live. Its amazing how you get to see the infinite power of man in comparison to nature.
    I am very proud of you.

  4. Laura Kelm
    Jan 29, 2010

    I am a CEM grad from ’08 and went on the first CEM trip to Midway that year. I was asking the Refuge manager at the time about recycling, as there wasn’t much, and it sounded too cost prohibitive. I am glad they found a great way to encourage recycling, and grow some of their own produce. Big steps for a small island, and I am sure that it is saving money too!

  5. David J Gellert Jr
    Feb 1, 2010

    This is a hello from one of the firefighters who live and work here on Midway. Glad everyone got here safe and sound and enjoyed their visit -hopefully, lol! Your time went by too fast though.

    I like to know if anyone saw the doctors cemetary near radar hill while venturing about?

    Good luck to all of you, hope you never forget Midway! If you like, say hi on FB.

  6. David J Gellert Jr
    Feb 1, 2010

    Hopefully I can shed some light on several question asked in this blog.

    The US Navy turned the island over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) back around 1996. Around that time there was not 5,000 people but just a handful of military personnel (2-300 perhaps).

    Todays’ population of 70-80 people are a mix of FWS employees, volunteers, American and Thai nationals. The FWS people only number 5-8 at any given time plus 3-4 volunteers. The rest work a company the provides services for the island – Cooks, Fuelers, Constructioners, Electricians and so on.

    We get our supplies on the same plane that flies people up here from Honolulu or on the barge 4 times a year. The charter flight comes a minimum of 3 times per month. The plane is how most people arrive and go but a few do come and go from a research ship that shows up a few times per year.

    The Coast Guard out of Hawaii will come out anytime we need to medivac sick or injured people off the island to Hawaii.

    Midway also serves as a fuel stop for any aircraft who wants to come in for fuel. Unless it is an emergency, no aircraft can land or take off during the day due to the bird activity between November and July. Trust me, you have not seen bird activity until you come here!

    Anymore questions? Send me a message on FB. Thank you.

  7. Cristina Villanueva
    Feb 3, 2010

    Thanks for all your comments! and a special thanks to David for answering the questions 🙂 I can assure you, none of us will ever forget Midway!

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