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