Haven’t heard of Midway before? Located more than 1,500 northwest of Honolulu, this tiny atoll is literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between the west coast of the United States and Japan.
Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is near the end of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, part of the nation’s largest conservation area—the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument—which protects over 583,000 square miles (an area more than 3 times the size of California!). This extensive system encompasses more than 200 undersea mountains, atolls, islands, coral reefs, and deep sea canyons, which together provide habitat for more than 7,000 marine species—including 23 seabird species, 30 marine mammal species, 200 coral species, 25 threatened and endangered species, and a world of microorganisms in the deep sea that are as yet unknown to science. When you look at this marine protected area on a map, you might think that it’s all open ocean—but it’s a lot more than just water.
Midway goes by the Hawaiian names of Kuaihelani (backbone of the heavens) as well as Pihemanu (loud din of birds). But why would Midway be associated with birds? One imagines a flat atoll surrounded by hundreds of miles of sea—home to seemingly no one. And yet, it is one of the most prolific and important breeding sites for a variety of seabirds.
According to BirdLife International, more than 70% of the world’s Mōlī / Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and almost 40% of the Kaʻupu / Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) populations breed on Midway each year. In fact, almost 3 million birds from 23 different species (some more rare than others) flock to this atoll during the breeding season. That’s equal to about the entire population of the state of Mississippi—all crammed into the tiny 2.4 square miles (or 6.2 square kilometers) that comprise Midway Atoll. The atoll’s three small islands provide a virtually predator-free safe haven for the world’s largest albatross colony. Indeed, more than 1 million albatross return each year to breed; off of the roads and trails, it is jam-packed with birds. Beyond the birds, the atoll is encircled by a ring of coral reef that hosts an amazing variety of unique wildlife including threatened Honu / Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas), Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris), and endangered ʻIlio holo I ka uaua / Hawaiian Monk Seals (Monachus schauinslandi) among an unprecedented rate of endemic fish.
Midway Atoll is a rare gem, one of the few places in the world where wildlife abounds freely (see for yourself--take a virtual tour of Midway Atoll NWR through Google Earth). When I walk out of the door of my house in the morning (that I share with two other Kupu interns—David Dow [Native Plant Propagation Specialist] and Kristina McOmber [Volunteer Crew Leader]), it feels like stepping into an alternate universe. Whereas most places where I’ve lived and worked (from the verdant forests of Missouri to the dry, open landscapes of Arizona), humans tend dominate the landscape—with a smattering of other biota. Most of us have grown in up in “developed” areas, usually surrounded by more asphalt and concrete than trees and rivers. At Midway Atoll NWR, we are the visitors. We are in the minority. With a town of about 40 folks, we are easily outnumbered by the 2-3 million seabirds that cover the entire atoll (and sometimes below the atoll, as in the case of the Bonin Petrels that dig extensive burrows under every patch of sand and excavatable substrate). It is a refreshing contrast to the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life but also a needed reminder of our humble place in the web of life. Moreover, having the incredible opportunity to live in a place like this feels like taking a step back in time, experiencing what life was like in many of the islands throughout the Pacific before human development. Wild, abundant, and free.
Yet, Midway also speaks to the power of collective goodwill and restoration; it is a symbol of what conservation can look like. Midway Atoll was heavily modified during WWII and became the site of a massive Navy base; moreover, this atoll was heavily bombed and shelled during the Battle of Midway in 1942. Once a barren, sandy atoll, decades of dredging, building, digging, moving, and bulldozing have changed the shape and extent of the atoll’s islands. Acres upon acres covered with concrete, thousands of tons of topsoil brought in—and in the process, these actions have seriously degraded wildlife habitat and introduced hundreds of exotic and invasive plants. After all of this change, it’s a wonder that the wildlife survived. Granted, it’s taken years of staff and volunteer effort, sweat, and (at times) tears, but the Refuge is slowly going back to a wild place—a sacred atoll where birds rule. Invasive plants are hand-pulled or sprayed one at a time, opening up the way for native plants to recover and carpet the atoll with quality habitat. Native plant communities are restored, one plant at a time. They are hand-raised in the Refuge’s humble greenhouses, then hand-planted and hand-watered until they are strong and robust enough to stand on their own. And that’s how conservation works. That’s how restoration happens.
Stay tuned… more next time about invasive plant management on the Refuge and the wild history behind Midway Atoll’s exotic plant species.
This blog post was originally featured on Kupu, a Honolulu-based 501(c)3 non-profit that empowers future generations to create a more sustainable, pono Hawai‘i. Check back here to read more stories and updates about Midway Atoll NWR.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.