We left around 6:30pm, just after sunset. As we flew out, we could suddenly start to see all of Honolulu, all of the island. Darkness was starting to settle in and lights popped up all across the island, illuminating highways, neighborhoods, strip malls, and more like glowing veins in slow-moving lava. Snaking through the canyons and low-laying lands, headlights glowed like lava seeping out of cracks. Up in the sky, we were finally on our way to Midway.
We steadily crept upwards in the darkness, plunging into seemingly even more dark territory ahead. We were starting to break through the fog and all of a sudden, we emerged on top of a gently flowing field of clouds. Above us, it was as if we were peering into the universe with constellations shining brightly. There didn’t seem to be any distance or barrier between the sky and beyond any more. Ahead of us now was a burning red horizon, a sunset we were trying to catch up with, that blended into a small prism of colors and then the engulfing darkness above. We continued cruising for a few hours, myself falling in and out of sleep, hardly believing that we were en route to Midway, and then dreaming again of albatross gliding seamlessly overhead, just like our plane through the night sky.
At one point, we started to hear the plane engines slow down. Still, we were in complete darkness. We couldn’t see anything but just felt the plane slowly, slowly coming down. Then, a flash of water, waves, sand, landing strip, and then we landed! It was so quick, so sudden, that we could hardly believe that we had landed on this tiny atoll, floating all alone for hundreds of miles. All of us volunteers began to laugh- after all, we were on the land of the gooney birds, at last! As the plane slowed down, we saw small white pillars, almost ghostlike, appear from the fog around the plane, on the grass surrounding the air strip. The plane was still moving fast but then, as it slowed, we all gasped. Albatross.
They were everywhere, lined up all along the airstrip, just a couple of feet from each other, sitting still, staring at us and the flashing lights of a massive albatross that had descended from the skies. As we got off of the plane, we could hardly believe our eyes and ears. I thought that there were an insane amount of shooting stars as I took my first few steps off of the plane. Adjusting to the light, I suddenly realized that Bonin Petrels were streaking the sky in every direction, zooming high and low. And the sounds… rough chattering of petrels, eerie whistles of albatross, and bill clacking, clapping, snapping galore. A feast for the senses. It was like walking into a dream and all of us volunteers were simply silenced. Albatross waddled around awkwardly, swaying from one side to another with every step with their big webbed feet, and Bonin Petrels even more so, dragging their bodies along the soil. In the air, they are weightless beings, flying along with the smallest of effort; on land, they limp, stumble, and waddle along, like pieces of feathered lead. Despite it being night, the birds are well and alive, singing, croaking, dancing. It is the most beautiful sound and one to which that I fell peacefully asleep.
The following morning, waking up was even more surreal. I had gone to bed a bit overwhelmed by the avian world into which I had suddenly plunged, hoping that some rest would help with the transition from sprawling sagebrush steppe to isolated island seabird colony. Walking towards the Clipper House for breakfast, Laysan Albatross spotted the landscape in the early morning glow. They are surprisingly large birds that are endlessly fascinating. Like most other seabirds, their plumage consists of plain shades and tints of black and white. Their head, torso, and belly are pure white, with a hint of black to grey around their eyes, and dark wings. On their face, just around the cheeks, grey feathers blend smoothly into the white of their neck, a perfect, seamless gradient. Albatross, no matter the species, seem to share this attribute of airbrush-style plumage, and the same can be said of the Black-footed Albatross (I’ll get to them later!). Laysan Albatross have eyes that are a deep, deep black, like pools of ink. They have a penetrating stare and you can see them thinking, wondering as we wander past. Up to this point, albatross probably seem like peaceful, serene birds… but this is the breeding season and albatross are anything but that right now. In fact, they are in a constant flux between elaborate courtship displays and attacking the nearest intruder. They snap and snip at one another, let out high-pitched whinnies, point their bills to the sky and let out a sad sounding moan. They dance a most complicated dance, shaking their heads vigorously yes and no, then acting as if they are preening their wings, each copying the other. Multiply these sounds and sights by a couple thousand and you’ll start to approach the situation on Midway.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.