Even the erratic weather couldn’t stop us from getting our hands dirty on our first day on this amazing and unique island.
The dawn of our first day at Midway revealed what our eyes had merely glimpsed in part the night before – albatross. Hundreds of albatross. No… in fact, thousands of them. On the ground all around us as far as the eye could see. The only places they did not nest were on man-made areas such as roads and the roof of buildings, and only because these surfaces did not provide suitable habitat for them. We stumbled out of bed and made our way to the galley for breakfast, before proceeding as a group to the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center for an introduction to the island.
John Klavitter, from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), greeted us warmly in spite of the cold drizzle that descended upon us. He welcomed us to thePapahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and more specifically to Midway – the small atoll that we will call home for the next eight days. Unlike the other islands in the Monument, Midway has had a long history of human impact and presence, especially since it played a vital role in the military history of the US and in World War II. I was reminded that while we were literally in the “wilderness” of the Pacific Ocean with the closest major continents at least a couple thousand miles away, we were, however, not in a “pristine” environment that was untouched by humans. Nevertheless, this has not stopped various flora and fauna from inhabiting the island. Species to look out for, besides the ubiquitous Laysan albatross, were the Black-footed albatross, the rare Short-tailed albatross and Laysan Duck (more information on these birds can be found here), as well as the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and Hawaiian green turtle. My excitement at possibly observing the latter two animals up close was quashed when John broke the news that we had to maintain a distance of at least 150 feet from them whenever possible. I guess we’ll have to rely on our trusty binoculars and zoom lenses then!
Our afternoon activities had us jumping right into one of the main issues plaguing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands – marine debris. We assisted Liz and Jun, who were volunteers with the USFWS, with two projects related to marine debris. The first was a mark and re-capture pilot study that involved marking pieces of debris found on sections of the beaches and resurveying those sections weekly for marked and unmarked debris. The second involved collecting debris from various beaches, sorting them, then recording and weighing them. We were split into two for this second study and the group I was in collected approximately 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of debris and more than 200 pieces of plastic fragments that were the size of bottle caps and larger.
Majority of what washes up on Midway’s beaches originate not in the Hawaiian Islands, but thousands of miles away, in continental US and Asia. It is sad to realize that I personally have gotten so used to seeing trash on beaches that the blue plastic pieces on the beaches of Midway had very little effect on me. My mind is unable to grasp the dichotomy of the presence of marine debris in relation to the remoteness of where we are. Hopefully this will sink in slowly over the next few days as we discover other effects marine debris has on this ecosystem.
While these activities were instructive and interesting, the highlights of the day probably took place in between, and involved the thousands of albatross that breed and raise their chicks here. Indeed, there seemed to be no way to escape seeing them or hearing their calls while on the island (except maybe with a pair of really good ear-plugs). They are unafraid of humans as they have no natural predators, and all of us spent at least some time communing with a bird or two on our way to and from these activities. We literally could be within a foot of these beautiful birds without them flying away. However, they also had their own set of traffic rules and crossed the road in front of our bikes whenever they wanted, however slowly they wanted. I had a few close calls with some birds throughout the day as I tried unsuccessfully to heed John’s advice to “stop and let the albatross cross in front of you.” I certainly wasn’t used to stopping for crossing birds, much less birds that weren’t in a hurry to get out of the way! But that’s probably something I’ll have to get used to soon, since these birds grossly outnumber us humans. It seems that on Midway at least, wildlife has the right of way.