Not many people can say they’ve “run the gooney gauntlet.”
To do so, one attempts to walk, run, bicycle or drive a vehicle through a maze of nesting gooney birds - albatrosses - without being attacked by a belligerent beak, or told off in a loud, unearthly “screeeeck” that one is trespassing on sacred gooney nesting ground.
So life goes on Midway Atoll between November and July. For nine months, this far-flung dot of sand, surf and concrete in mid-Pacific endures a cacophony of bill-clacking, neck-rearing, wing-spreading, whinnying, screeching gooneys, at times joined by terns, shearwaters, tropic birds, petrels, boobies and frigatebirds, all claiming a particular niche as their breeding turf.
Last fall, I was among the first eco-tourists allowed access to Midway as part of an ambitious scheme to convert the U.S. strategic Naval base into a National Wildlife Refuge administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Upon landing on this tiny atoll that barely breaks the surface of the Pacific 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu, my first impression was of a sprawling military base, a vista of concrete runways and shoebox-shaped, flat-roofed, humdrum buildings relieved by large rectangles of mowed grass dotted with Laysan and Blackfoot albatrosses.
At any given time, one or more of the atoll’s indigenous seabird species are either courting, hatching eggs or raising chicks, oblivious to human activity. Right now, that activity amounts to frenzy.
All across Sand Island’s 800 acres, buildings are coming down instead of going up, and pavement is being removed instead of laid. The overhaul of an entire military enclave is no easy task. It’s a huge effort that puts U.S. tax dollars to work, literally for the birds. Today almost a million gooneys nest on Midway. Besieged for nearly a century, they have at last won a reprieve.
Midway sat alone in obscurity until 1903, when the trans-Pacific telegraph cable was laid. Introduced plants began an insidious botanical takeover that eventually crowded out native shrubbery preferred by seabirds.
Meanwhile, the human presence on Midway grew and flourished. But the birds were not severely impacted until June 1942, when bombardment by Japanese planes during the Battle of Midway led to mass destruction of albatross adults and their nearly fledged chicks.
Nevertheless, the survivors continued to nest on the atoll and by the 1950s had become a serious flight hazard on Sand and Eastern Islands’ extensive runways. Navy personnel, having won the Battle of Midway, now re-armed for the Battle of the Big Birds.
“Operation Bedsheet” involved trying to scare birds off the tarmac by waving sheets. It didn’t work. (Gooneys 1, Navy 0.)
“Operation Skirmish Line” involved firing blanks at the feathered foe. (Gooneys 2, Navy 0.)
Then came the smoke bombs. (Gooneys 3, Navy 0.)
A truce was finally declared in the mid-‘60s, a grudging acceptance that the birds couldn’t be conquered. “If you can’t lick ‘em, make their lives easier,” is the new byword.
Visitors to the atoll are helping, in many ways. Oceanic Society Expeditions of San Francisco fields teams of paying volunteers who help monitor seabirds by undertaking population counts, observing nests and tagging chicks. They can also aid efforts to learn more about the atoll’s endangered monk seals and its resident schools of spinner dolphins.
Educational programs emphasize both military and natural history through field trips and lectures. Elderhostel, an international tour program for seniors, now sends small teams to Midway to help with plant restoration. In waters around Midway, world records have been broken for sport fishing of ulua, a large jack. Divers explore an underwater world teeming with tame, colorful fish in crystal-clear seas.
If there’s a problem on Midway, it’s just that there’s too much to see, so many corners to explore. When I wasn’t rushing here and there, afraid to miss a single seal, turtle, unusual seabird, or coral reef, I was spending hours lying on my stomach among the gooneys, camera with telephoto lens looking like an extension of my face, a Peeping Tom mesmerized by the elaborate, time-honored courtship ritual of this seabird.
When I finally crashed after dinner, albatrosses danced like white spots before the dark curtain of sleep. By week’s end I was a victim of natural history overload.
I will go back to Midway, because every season is unique. Whether it’s albatrosses, petrels, terns, boobies, frigatebirds, turtles, dolphins, tropical fish or monk seals, there’s a veritable smorgasbord of wild creatures to observe and wonder at.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Visitors make the four-hour flight to Midway Atoll aboard Phoenix Air’s comfortablyoutfitted 19-passenger Gulf Stream turbo-prop aircraft departing from the Hawaiian Island of Kauai on specified days during the week. Newly renovated Navy barracks include double accommodation suites with private bath. Three meals are provided; as of this summer, a new beach-side pavilion restaurant will be in operation. For complete information on natural history tours to Midway Atoll, contact Oceanic Society Expeditions at (800) 326-7491, fax (415) 474-3395, or write to them at Fort Mason Center, Bldg. E, San Francisco, CA 94123.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.