Midway Atoll Teaches 4 Valuable Lessons to Visitors

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Midway is a paradise, and visiting it with the Oceanic Society last month was an incredible privilege. As I reflect back on the journey, from the history of the atoll to the wildlife that calls it home, there are four aspects of the atoll that surface as the most important to consider.

Appreciating The Beauty of Midway

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Midway is home base for many seabird species, from the Bonin petrels pictured above, to Great frigatebirds, Red-footed boobies, Black-footed albatross and more. It is an important habitat for nesting as well as a rest stop for shorebirds during migrations.

Midway is the most important breeding area for Laysan albatross, a species vulnerable to extinction as pollution and fishing pressures increase. To see the chicks being reared -- to watch their struggles and successes -- was truly amazing.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

The diversity of wildlife on this tiny spit of land in the middle of the Pacific ocean is incredible. Even the surprises among species is wonderful to see, including albino Laysan chicks and hybrids between Laysan and Black-footed albatross species.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Endangered Green sea turtles come to Midway to rest, and recently even to reproduce. They bask in the sun on Turtle Beach and pause to feed on Man O War jellyfish. Spinner dolphins seek refuge in the atoll's lagoon during the day, resting before leaving to hunt at night.

Hawaiian monk seals also find Midway important habitat for resting and raising pups. This critically endangered seal is the oldest seal species and yet is on the cusp of extinction. Having quiet beaches on the three islands of Midway is vital to their survival.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Midway is also once again home to a species that dwindled down to just 12 individuals at one point: the Laysan Teal. This adorable duck species was translocated here from Laysan Island a few years ago and the population has taken off. It is amazing to see a duck so content in the middle of the ocean.

Restoring Habitat and Health to the Atoll

© Jaymi Heimbuch

The second aspect of Midway today that stands out the most is the efforts put forward to restore the habitat to what it once was, and make room for the endemic species of plants and animals to flourish.

From lead paint remediation to end the thousands of deaths caused by decades paint chips flaking into the soil, to pulling mountains of invasive plants and replacing them with native plant species and safe habitat for nesting birds, the USFWS does as much as possible on a tight budget with few workers to return this place to its former glory -- all while preserving the military history of the atoll.

© Rebecca Jackrel

Cleaning the plastic washing up on shore is one of the major tasks that will never end on Midway. We have polluted the ocean to such a degree with our plastics that it is hard to fathom a day when all of it is cleaned up. Still, workers and volunteers try their best to tidy things up.

Valuing Volunteers

© Rebecca Jackrel

And that leads us to the third thing that stands out the most to me about Midway -- the value of volunteers. The Oceanic Society does a wonderful job setting up opportunities for ecotourists to give back to the islands. While visiting, I was excited to take part in planting bunch grass, a native grass that helps keep the albatross chicks cool and protected.

© Rebecca Jackrel

Volunteers have even been responsible for painting the decoys that have helped draw the endangered Short-tailed albatross to nest on Midway for the first time in recorded history.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

And there are more permanent volunteers on Midway than the passing ecotourists. Three volunteers take up residence on Midway every three months to help in any way they can. Many of the important jobs the USFWS needs to accomplish would be impossible without these volunteers. Their daily tasks include monitoring the health of the albatross populations, keeping the Laysan Teal habitat safe from botulism, battling the invasive weeds and planting native plants, cleaning beaches and much, much more.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

There is so much work left to be done, indeed it will be never-ending. But even to restore Midway as much as has already been done is an incredible feat considering the odds.

Remembering Why It Is Worth Saving

© Jaymi Heimbuch

And finally, this brings us to the fourth issue most clear to me after the trip to Midway: the fact that all the hard work is so very worth it.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Midway has turned from a battle ground to a World Heritage Site in a matter of decades. There is an incredible amount of history to this place, and it is a cultural and ecological important area. It is more than just the wildlife and history that is worth saving. It is the idea that we can turn a place around, change it back to what it once was and make it whole again.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Midway should be considered a symbol of hope for the environmental movement. The lessons learned here about placing the ecosystem first to ensure the survival of many species, while also considering the well-being of the human population, can be translated to the entire planet.

Sometimes it seems as if the global problems of pollution, habitat loss, species extinction and warming temperatures is beyond our ability to fix -- we've let things run beyond repairability. But stopping to consider why it is all worth saving makes the monumental task something to tackle.

The successes experienced through long-term management strategies and the ongoing efforts to restore vitality to the island are messages of hope for what can be accomplished globally. If we pay attention to this speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we can learn how to repair the entire planet.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

If you'd like to take part in an expedition to Midway or other atolls, check out the trips offered by the conservation group Oceanic Society. It's ecotourism at its best!

Tags: Conservation | Endangered Species | longreads | Midway

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