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July 2000, Vol. 26 No. 2
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Midway Magic

An award-winning UH Hilo summer studies program offers a look at atoll life

by Cheryl Ernst

It doesn't take long to realize you've landed on a different kind of Hawaiian island. The 737 you're riding takes an odd swerve after touching down and then stops short of the terminal because a resident has wandered onto the runway—gooney birds have the right-of-way here. The fields and hotel lawns are covered with tuxedo-marked black-and-white birds tending their whimsical chicks, who sit hedgehog-esque in mounded nests. The air is filled with a cacophony of cries, clacking, mooing and braying, and the clouds reflect the aqua water of the lagoon. Newspapers are non-existent; TV is satellite service from Denver; and human visitors cover the short distance to any point on the island by foot, bike, golf cart or an old gray bus. Dining options are a Navy-style galley or a fine French restaurant overlooking sugar white sand, one of the finest beaches in the world.

Welcome to Midway—far-flung ecological marvel in the Hawaiian archipelago.

A three-islet atoll, this nearly northwestern-most piece of Hawai'i is the only national wildlife refuge to partner with a private corporation to provide visitor accommodations. Refuge Manager Rob Shallenberger calls it "America's version of the Galapagos," a place where people can see 250 species of fish, 16 species of sea birds, spinner dolphins and endangered sea turtles and monk seals all in their native habitat.

It is also a place where ecotourism meets edutourism. In cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the atoll's new caretaker, UH Hilo offered its first on-site summer course in 1997. The program has expanded to six offerings this summer, including week-long courses on seabirds, cetaceans, sharks and invertebrates. This summer's program also featured a course on teaching marine science and a nature writing class that covered topics from environmental journalism to literary writing. Ideas for future courses abound—the history of World War II, atoll geology, island architecture and wildlife photography, to name a few.

"Part of the mission statement for Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is to provide educational opportunities," says Karla McDermid, chair of marine science at UH Hilo. "We are the only state with an atoll. Students fly for miles to get here and are rewarded with a unique educational experience." Many return as Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers or interns or employees of Midway Phoenix Corporation, the Atlanta-based company that operates housing and recreation facilities and maintains the airstrip and other infrastructure.

What accounts for the Midway magic? McDermid explains: "Midway is a window on an intact, functioning atoll ecosystem," she says. "It is a window on the other northwest Hawaiian islands (which are closed to the public). It is a window on the future of how people and nature can interact." It is also a rich resource for scientists, she adds. "During our first year here, we discovered seven new species of seaweeds." Navy restrictions limited commercial fishing for years, so the fish population is extensive. Since rats were eradicated, the rare Bonin petrel, a ground-burrowing bird, has been making a comeback. The Midway population of Hawaiian monk seals is one of the few increasing in number.

For information about UH Hilo marine science summer courses on Midway, call 808 974-7664; e-mail; write 200 West Kawili St., SSB #118, Hilo, HI 96720-4091; or visit Waikiki Aquarium also offers Midway education tours; call 808 923-9741; write Education Department, 2777 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, HI 96815; or visit Other Web sites of interest—U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, www.r1., and Midway Phoenix Corporation,

The life cycle of a Hawaiian atoll

Lava from an underwater hot spot in Earth's crust forms a volcanic island

Movement of the Pacific plate carries the island to the northwest

Wind, water and changing sea level erode the island until it disappears beneath the ocean surface

Coral and coralline algae skeletons form a fringing reef around the island's edge, creating an atoll

Coral sand creates small islets atop the sinking basalt

Eventually, the atoll sinks

A pair of adult albatross sit on the grass looking at the camera.

Gooney bird trivia

Seventy percent of the world's Laysan albatross population nests on Midway.

The nickname stems from the graceful flyer's awkward landing and its bobbing, beak-tucking courtship dance.

Albatrosses drink sea water. Excess salt is extracted by a gland at the top of the bird's head, channeled down a groove in the beak, and shaken off.

Parents swallow squid and flying-fish eggs from the ocean surface to regurgitate as food for their chicks. Discarded plastic cigarette lighters, picked up by mistake, contribute to starvation-related deaths of chicks.

Midway milestones

1859 Captain Brooks of Honolulu first visits the atoll

1867 U.S. government annexes the islets

1903 The Navy assumes control and names Commercial Pacific Cable Company island custodian

1935 Pan American World Airways' begins overnight stops on Trans-Pacific Flying Clipper seaplane service

1941 U.S. commissions Naval Air Station Midway

1942 The Battle of Midway turns the tide of the war in the Pacific

1969 President Nixon and South Vietnam President Thieu meet in secret to discuss an end to the Vietnam War

1988 Overlay National Wildlife Refuge designation is established

1993 Naval Air Facility Midway closes; environmental clean up begins

1996 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assumes jurisdiction

2000 Aloha Airlines begins regularly scheduled service source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service