Midway. It seems like a dream.
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 Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and almost 40% of the 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.
And, in just a few days, I will be travelling over 3,000 miles (about 10 times the distance that I used to drive from my home in Boise, Idaho to the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho) to this speck of an atoll. You can't get much further from anywhere else on Earth than on Midway. As you can see below, this atoll truly is "mid-way" in the Pacific Ocean between North America and Asia.
In fact, because of its lonely location, Midway has had quite a long (well, geologically speaking, quite short) and colorful history. This atoll, comprised of Sand, Eastern, and Spit Islands, formed as a sheet volcano about 28 million years ago over a hotspot-- the same one from which Hawai'i developed. All of these islands --Hawai'i, Midway, and more-- are part of the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount Chain, a formidable range of seamounts, atolls, and islands that stretch over 3,600 miles (or 5,800 kilometers) from the Aleutian Trench far north by Alaska to the Lo'ihi seamount (the youngest volcano in this chain, about 22 miles [or 35 kilometers] southeast of the Island of Hawai'i). However, as the Pacific plate moved northwest, Midway started to subside. Normally, other islands or atolls like Midway would eventually subside to the point that they would become seamounts, but a coral reef formed around Midway and steadily grew upwards, allowing it to stay near sea level. This now forms the Midway Atoll, a shallow water atoll about 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) across.
Ok, now for history part of the island that includes humans (for better or for worse). For several million years, Midway lay alone in the ocean, unbeknownst to most. Most likely, early Polynesian settlers may have come across Midway at one point or another, but this tiny, flat, sandy atoll probably didn't seem too welcoming or hospitable. However, things started to change, quite quickly towards the late nineteenth century. In 1867, Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna took formal possession of Midway Atoll. Only a few years later, the USS Saginaw and crew arrived with the mission to initiate improvement efforts at Midway and build a coal depot in support of transpacific commerce, which included plans to blast 600-foot wide ship channel through the reef into the lagoon. However, the mission soon ended due to severe weather.
More changes came to Midway in 1903, specifically in the form of the first transpacific cable. It's hard to imagine, but this cable stretched from San Francisco to Honolulu to Midway to Guam to the Philippines (over 7,000 miles or more than 11,000 kilometers!) and carried the first round-the-world message from President Theodore Roosevelt on July 4, 1903, in which he wished “a happy Independence Day to the U.S., its territories and properties.”
Along with the cable station and crew came other visitors-- but not the kind you might expect. Daniel Morrison, superintendent of the cable station in 1906-1921, brought in a variety of plants and trees, such as a coarse grass species (Ammophila arenaria) and ironwood (Casuarina equisetifolia), to create windbreaks on the windy atoll. Other visitors soon came to call Midway "home," such as Cycas species, Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla), coconut (Cocos nucifera) and various deciduous trees, either brought in knowingly or not by other cable crew members. Superintendent Morrison also brought along canary birds (Serinus canaria domestica-- which still can be found on Midway today!), Laysan finches (Telespiza cantans-- endemic to Laysan Island), and Laysan rails (Porzana palmeri-- again, endemic). Needless to say, the ecology of Midway changed drastically over a short period of time-- the effects of which are still felt (and being addressed) today.
Along with these visitors (or rather, invasive species), Japanese poachers frequently visited the atoll to fish and collect bird feathers and eggs. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had a deep admiration and respect for birds, sent 21 Marines to immediately stop the destruction of bird life. This proactive approach to conservation would come to define Roosevelt's presidency-- after all, he would go on to establish 51 federal bird reservations which were instrumental in protecting bird populations and winning the "war" on the feather trade during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
1935 ushered in a new era of visitors-- wealthy world travelers. In that year, Pan American Airlines operations opened and offered a five-day transpacific passage, one of the fastest and most luxurious routes to the far east. Via Martin M-130 "clippers" (sea boats-- see picture above), folks could fly from Honolulu to Midway, then on to Wake, Guam, Manila, and Macau. Of course, only the wealthiest could afford such a trip, which easily costed more than three times the annual salary of an average American. Once on Midway, visitors enjoyed time to relax and roam the atoll, or even meet some of the local "gooney birds" (i.e. albatross). After that, they would retire to the nearby Pan American Airlines Hotel, which was aptly named the “Gooneyville Lodge.”
However, this time of luxury travel via Midway ended quickly. On December 8, 1941, Pan American Airlines closed down due to the development of WWII and the onslaught of the Pacific War. But, we'll save this history lesson for my next post!
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.