The clearest day on Midway in weeks and we spent it snorkeling the reef and gardening with Albatross.
Activities are weather dependent on Midway so when we headed to breakfast on Day 2 our schedule was up in the air (weather.com doesn’t exactly have a 10-hour forecast for Midway). After a hearty meal and a quick change of plans due to the bright sun and low winds we were changing into swimsuits for our first snorkeling adventure to the Reef Hotel. The site is named for an actual hotel built there in the 60s that no longer exists.
We met John Miller and John Klavitter from Fish and Wildlife Service at the boathouse at 8 am. Everyone geared up and most of us donned two wetsuits to brave the cold Pacific. Excitement was palpable as the boat launched. Spinner dolphins joined us on the bow for part of our ride to the reef fringing Midway atoll, which lies 5 miles out from Sand Island. As we approached Reef Hotel, deep blue water turned a brilliant aqua and the 10-foot waves breaking on the outer edge came into focus. Trust me when I say the pictures barely do it justice.
Once in the water a few lucky people saw a large shape swimming near the edge of the reef. Some thought it was a huge shark, others a giant turtle. What they realized as it edged closer was that a monk seal had crept up on them. Monk Seals forage on the reef eating octopus, bottom fish and some crustaceans. They are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act as well as the Endangered Species Act, and no one is allowed to approach within 150 feet. That doesn’t stop them however, from approaching you. Annabelle and Jen also saw a Green sea turtle, and Michelle and I saw neither, making us question our snorkeling abilities. Not surprisingly theroyal purple coral, giant parrotfish, and fringe reef topography were enough to make the trip amazing on their own.
The high energy on the boat was severely diminished when our boat’s antenna hit a Laysan Albatross, breaking its right wing. The bird collapsed to the water, its injury quite obvious. In a sudden and somber silence the boat turned back and Dave and Andy, our adept leaders, retrieved the bird. The bird was humanely destroyed because it could no longer feed itself, and this incident brought us back to the often harsh reality of human/wildlife interactions.
Hot showers, great lunch, and soft serve ice cream revived us, and Greg Schubert from Fish and Wildlife Service met us at 1 pm to lead our afternoon activity. Greg is responsible for re-vegetation of native plants to facilitate habitat restoration and curb the spread of invasive plant species. The plant posing the biggest threat on Midway is Verbesina encelioides, or golden crownbeard, a type of sunflower that out competes native plants and grows so densely that albatross and Laysan ducks, the rarest duck in the Northern hemisphere, are prevented from nesting.
Our mission, which we enthusiastically accepted, was to plant bunch grass in hopes of creating Laysan duck nesting area and a barrier to stop the spread of invasive plant seeds into mostly cleared fields. Greg was pumped to have 13 willing and able bodies and we planted as many plants as he and his team could throw at us. We barely noticed the on and off rain showers as we planted over 2,100 individual plants that required nearly 300 carefully dug holes. We walked softly in fear of collapsing Bonin Petrel burrows which form an elaborate tunnel network beneath the albatross nests. A few collapses revealed surprised and extremely cute, nesting petrels. I felt bad about collapsing the burrows but most of them were unused or could be dug out so the birds could still emerge at dusk when they typically feed. The work was hard but fulfilling as we crept down the field and planted as much area as they usually do in two months.
One thing I forgot to mention is that we were gardening amidst a few hundred Laysan albatrosses! They snapped threats at us from their nests as we walked by with shovels and bunch grass, and they wandered awkwardly through the newly planted areas. Sub-adults even practiced nesting on the piles of dirt next to holes shoveled for the plants. It was cool to be so close to them and they were just as interested in us as we were in them.