Journey to Midway
Midway is a tiny piece of isolated land in the middle of the Pacific ocean, yet the remoteness and small size doesn't mean things are simple. Home to many endangered species and a vital stopping ground for migrating animals, the three islands of the atoll are recognized as not only historically significant but environmentally significant as well. Midway faces a dizzying array of complex problems that highlight just how interconnected everything is, from air, water, and animals, to economics and culture. Those problems, as well as the solutions and small successes that have been achieved so far in returning Midway to health, make it an example and inspiration for sustainability around the planet.
Welcomed By Endangered Species
If you are lucky enough to visit Midway, the first thing you'll realize is how amazing it is to be welcomed to the atoll by a variety of endangered species. Midway is an important nesting ground for threatened Laysan albatross and endangered Black-footed albatross. It is also, for the first time in recorded history, the nesting ground of the critically endangered Short-Tailed albatross. These birds are all under threat from overfishing, the dangers of being caught by fishermen as bycatch, plastic pollution in the oceans, sea-level rise and more severe weather from climate change, and other serious issues. Midway's location makes it ideal as a nesting ground and resting place for these and many other species, and its importance cannot be underestimated.
Plastic Pollution, One Bird At A Time
Plastic pollution is perhaps the most visible problem on Midway. The beaches are covered in plastic with every wave, washed in from all over the world from the east coast of Asia to the west coast of North America. It also arrives via bird. Albatross eat plastics at sea, mistaking pieces for squid, fish and fisheggs. They bring the "food" back and feed it to their chicks. Littered across the islands are bird-bite-sized bits of plastic which have already killed birds and are reappearing after the carcasses decompose. If there is one place in the world where our toxic and deadly plastic problem is as visible as can be, it is Midway.
While Midway has no shortage of plastic, it also has no shortage of adorable albatross chicks. Hundreds of thousands of chicks are born on Midway each year, and among them are a handful of novelties, such as all-white chicks. Three such chicks were born on the atoll to Laysan albatross parents this year -- two of which are growing up right across the road from each other. They are leucistic, not albino, as they have normal-colored eyes rather than pink eyes. Growing up on Midway is a challenge. There is nothing easy about life for these chicks. But one thing they have going for them is they're being raised in an incredibly beautiful area.
Marine Species of Midway
Birds are not the only wonderful wildlife on Midway. The water is chock full of marine life. These spinner dolphins are part of a pod of about 80. They rest in the lagoon during the day and leave the atoll to hunt at night. Every so often, you might be lucky enough to see an amazing aerial display as the dolphins leap and, as their name implies, spin through the air. Endangered green sea turtles as well as critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals haul up on Midway's beaches to sun and rest in safety during the day. All but one beach on Sand Island, the largest island and the one on which humans live, is closed off to people so that these animals can get the vital rest they need.
Giving Back During a Trip of a Lifetime
When you are a tourist, how often do you have the opportunity to make the place you're visiting a little bit more perfect? Visiting Midway Atoll with the Oceanic Society, a non-profit organization that works to protect endangered wildlife and preserve threatened marine habitats worldwide, gives you just such an opportunity. One of the features of the trips offered by the organization is that they work with the people in the areas to set up volunteer activities for the participants to take part in, from planting native plants or removing invasive species to beach clean-ups.
World-Changing History Held on Midway
Midway became a vital base for naval operations during World War II, and was the site of what many regard as the most important naval battle in the war. There are relics of the war still on the atoll, such as the pillbox pictured above where young soldiers would sit and watch the horizon for any sign of invading ships. Wandering around the islands, there is structure after structure left from war times that send the imagination spiraling back to what it must have been like during the Battle of Midway, and the years following the war when the military maintained a presence on the atoll. For Americans, especially veterans, the presence of these memories is as important to conserve as the wildlife that calls the atoll home.
A Marine Wildlife Sanctuary Forever
For such a tiny place, Midway has an incredibly robust history and presence in the world. The three small islands of the atoll add up to between 1,500-1,600 acres and yet their importance to a diverse range of species and to American history cannot be understated. It is no wonder then, that the Midway Atoll is now part of a larger marine sanctuary that is helping to bring back endangered species populations and act as an example for a sustainable planet, which in turn is a double World Heritage Site, one of only 28 in the world to be recognized for both its natural and cultural importance. Part of the Papahanaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which earned the title of World Heritage Site, Midway is hopefully forever protected as a sanctuary for wildlife.
Final Lessons Learned From Midway
There are four valuable lessons Midway teaches us. First, we live in an intensely beautiful world, and that beauty must be appreciated because it is as fragile as it is magnificent. Second, we can and must restore damaged habitats back to their original health. On Midway, ongoing efforts to remediate deadly lead paint contaminating the soil as well as removing invasive species that have taken over during the years are making a big difference in bringing this island back to health. Third, that the efforts of volunteers can never be underestimated. The helping hands of so many people on this atoll are what's making a true difference, and without them Midway would be a very different place. And finally, Midway reminds us why all this effort is worthwhile. Seeing a new batch of chicks from many bird species every year is incredible, and their shot at a long, happy life depends in large part on our actions, even when we're half a world away. Our plastics, our pollution, our quest for fish, even our economy all plays a role in the future of these little fuzz-covered chicks. From the white sand beaches covered with napping turtles and seals to the fringing coral reef buzzing with dozens and dozens of marine species, Midway is a perfect example of the planet's wonders that are worth saving.
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