Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Midway (Tues., 1/27/09): Spinners & the Natural and Human History Clash
by -- January 28th, 2009

The day moved right on past stunningly beautiful into some extreme dolphin action, the confused history of Midway, and a hundred other things you know you want to read about.

Today we all felt blessed to be on Midway from first light.  I stumbled outside at 7am for a run.  And by “run,” I mean swerving back and forth around albatrosses.  Upon reaching West Beach, my path was blocked by a gang of albatross and a sign declaring, “Only Birds Beyond This Point.”

Morning at Rusty Bucket

Morning at Rusty Bucket

I skipped past birds along the inside of the berm, colors filling the sky over water a shade of brilliant blue I’ve never seen before.  On the return, I looked over my shoulder constantly and often found a pair of Fairy Terns following me, just a couple feet above my head.

The Laysan Albatross is goofy, adorable, and completely lovable, but the Fairy Tern is my favorite here for its beauty and gentleness.

Fairy Terns

Fairy Terns

Today was very busy. I was late getting back of course, so I shoveled in breakfast, took a blitz shower, and met the group in the lobby to discover that the weather was awesome enough to go “study” spinner dolphins on the water.

Today was gorgeous.  This has been the most beautiful weather since we got here, and we took full advantage by staying out on the water for around three hours.  Within two minutes of leaving the dock, dolphins surfaced off the port bow and the boat was instantly consumed with the joyous sounds of girls who have just seen dolphins.  Andy and Dave were clearly excited too, because they launched right into identification, biology, and management issues that I shall paraphrase poorly in the next paragraph.

Spinner dolphins have a uniquely tight behavioral schedule wherein they forage offshore at night, then return to shallow areas to rest during the day.  These resting habitats may be limiting for the population, especially in the face of tourism targeted at swimming with dolphins.  This has become a huge industry in the Hawaiian Islands and there are a plethora of tour groups that chase after spinners and dump off tourists where dolphins are resting during the day.  People who swim with dolphins often claim that the animals came to them and therefore they are making the choice to be with humans.  A group of people who claim to have telepathic relationships with dolphins are especially adamant.  However, the truth is that dolphins have many reasons to investigate invasions of resting habitat such as reconnaissance to determine threats from predators.  Any disturbance could affect affect their ability to rest.  Fortunately at Midway such tourism does not exist.  One wonders about the fate of other Pacific islands.

We lost the pod quickly and spent another two hours looking for more inside and… *gasp* outside the barrier reef.  After close encounters with marine debris, some of which we conquered, some of which conquered us, we headed for home. Just at the channel back inside the atoll, we found dolphins again.  They gave us a full show. We ate up about 20 minutes of video watching them play in the bow wake and launch themselves spinning into the air (a social behavior for which they are named).  We returned entirely satisfied to lunch on the deck overlooking the beautiful North Beach.

On Return from Spinner Dolphins

On Return from Spinner Dolphins

Today on Midway was more fun than you had today.  For a couple hours after lunch we were free.  A bunch of people walked on the beach in search of glass floats and unsurpassased views of the beach and lagoon .  A few of us went and jumped off the cargo  pier to snorkel.  Seeing a sea turtle at all is awesome.  This place is ridiculous though: I stopped counting after seeing 25 turtles on the nearby Turtle Beach.  To see four turtles from the water was spectacular; it gives you more appreciation for the majesty of these creatures.  We also of course did not approach, kill, injure, harass, molest, touch, talk to, fondle, have telepathy with, ask out on dates, or do anything else with the turtles pursuant to the Endangered Species Act that would be construed as a take, but simply allowed the turtle to swim past us naturally while we remained still.  Everyone should maintain such composure.

Green Sea Turtle Basking in the Sun

Green Sea Turtle Basking in the Sun

Today was still busy.  Once again, I was late to the group meeting because of snorkeling.  Fortunately, Matt, the Refuge Manager/chief brownsuit/big boss guy with cool facial hair — who was taking us on a history and infrastructure tour of the island — was late too.  He is a great guy and seems perfect for running the atoll.

We saw the cable station buildings, doctors’ cemetery, gun mounts, the site of the old church, the new hydroponic garden, the power station, the old seaplane hangar, old warehouse buildings, etc, etc.  The general sense of things is this: Midway was changed a great deal with lots of introduced species to make the place more livable for the people here who were supporting the cable station, early tourism, and the military base.  Human influence reached its height during World War II when nearly 5,000 people lived on the three tiny islands in the atoll.  A great deal was paved, constructed, poisoned, crushed, invaded, or killed outright.  This wonderful habitat for all manner of diverse living things was dealt every insult.  The flip side of this is that the 1941 Battle of Midway is considered the most important battle of the Pacific Theater in WWII, perhaps even the entire war.  Without the strong outpost here, it’s very possible that the Japanese would have won the Pacific and the War might have turned out very differently.  Much of what we saw today were old buildings and monuments that testify to the historic importance of Midway and the immense sense of national pride that many people feel here.

Memorial

Memorial

After the war, things were slowly scaled back until the 1990s when the military left altogether, leaving Midway in the trust of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  The Federal Aviation Administration also maintains a strong presence here because of the great interest in keeping the runway open as a safety measure.  The trick now for FWS is restoring the atoll with all the leftover messes from before while still dealing with the mandate of maintaining a huge runway and the associated facilities.  The coexistence of nature and humans’ past damages is the story of Midway.  FWS is doing an amazing job with what they have.  They really need money to fix all the buildings and simply make some of them safe enough for the people who work here to live in.  Things are neglected everywhere because there’s simply not enough money appropriated for the people here.  And yet among other things, they figured out a hydroponic garden that saves them thousands of dollars and keeps them in fresh vegetables.  Why don’t we have such a thing a the Marine Lab?  Or at the LSRC?  Should be looked into……

 

Today was never ending.  We finished it off by loading up on popcorn and fine beverages (like the highly popular Captain and Pass O Guava) and watching the 1943 Oscar winning “Battle of Midway” documentary which really hammered home the history and importance of this place for the country.  The good weather lasted into night and the sky was filled with bright stars…and petrels.  These little birds hole up during the day and you can’t walk anywhere off the path without caving in one of their blasted burrows that you then have to dig out to save them.  At night they fly about like crazy, swooping past your face, crashing into windows, and nicely terrorizing the invasive insect populations.  Midway is for the birds.

That was too much.  Sorry.  Rest assured the day was even fuller than what you just read.

Check out the photos page.

Last of all, can someone please solve the riddle on the school bus we found in the seaplane hangar?

No Grape Smugglers

No Grape Smugglers

1 Comment

  1. Oliver Press
    Dec 9, 2009

    Sounds like an incredible day! Can the petrels repair and salvage the caved in burrows?

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