Tourists Get Their Hands Dirty, Set An Example For Ecotourism On Midway

© Jaymi Heimbuch

When you are a tourist, how often do you have the opportunity to make the place you're visiting a little bit more perfect? I recently visited Midway Atoll with the Oceanic Society, a non-profit organization that works to protect endangered wildlife and preserve threatened marine habitats worldwide.

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. For our trip to Midway, that activity was learning about the habitat restoration efforts taking place on the atoll and helping to create new habitat for quite a few chicks.

Gathering for Bunch Grass

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Our activity revolved around planting bunch grass. Bunch grass is a native plant to the Northwestern and Main Hawaiian Islands. It provides shelter from the weather for the birds, acting as a wind break and shade. It also provides entertainment -- for whatever reason, the chicks and some adults love to pull at the blades.

The grass is grown in a greenhouse on Sand Island. Volunteers and staff use plastic pots lined with biodegradable coffee filters and filled with beach sand. They plant three shoots to a pot and when the roots take hold in the sand, they are ready to be transplanted in the field.

The Plant Expert

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Greg Schubert is the expert on Midway's flora. He actually started out as a volunteer himself, coming back so often to help and becoming such an expert that US Fish and Wildlife Service decided he should be a permanent part of the team. Now he is the Biological Technician and is in charge of making sure the invasive plants are kicked out, and the native plants welcomed back.

Catching Invasives with Natives

© Jaymi Heimbuch

The native bunch grass not only works as a shelter for the birds, but also as a weapon against the spread of invasive plants.

Schubert noticed that the spread of invasive plants was caused in large part from people. The seeds were picked up on people's shoes and on the tires of bikes and golf carts used around the island, and carried to other locations. If the seeds transported alongside roads could be contained then more progress would be made. The bunch grass helps accomplish this.

Bunch grass planted along the roadsides catches the seeds from other plants and keeps it from blowing in to areas where it could take root. The bunch grass grows thick enough that seeds can't easily sprout within it. So it's a winning strategy.

Chicks Tending the Garden

© Jaymi Heimbuch

A pallet of pots was pulled and set near a roadside that was cleared for the job. Cleared of plants, anyway. There's no clearing out the albatross chicks whose nests were located in the plot. So they had to become part of the team and acted as directors for where they wanted us to put the plants.

© Rebecca Jackrel

They're rather bossy.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Schubert showed us the technique for getting the right shaped "bowl" in which to plant three pots of bunch grass shoots, and how to fill in the space to ensure they take root.

© Rebecca Jackrel

And we all dove in. With about a dozen volunteers all working together, the job went by really quickly. It was also a great opportunity to talk with the fellow travelers. It is easy to get distracted on Midway and head off in your own direction, but this task organized by Oceanic Society brought us all together so that we could chat and learn more about why we were all visiting this remote atoll.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Wayne Sentman, the biologist leading the group, happily put on a pair of gloves and helped to establish a healthy habitat for the albatross.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

And the chicks loved the bunch grass before it even got into the ground. Several nearby chicks decided they wanted to relocate to the bowls of bunch grass. They already know that these patches will keep them cool from the heat.

Volunteer Efforts Bringing People Together

© Rebecca Jackrel

This was one of the most satisfying hours spent on Midway. I gained such a sense of joy knowing that I could take a couple hours to give back to this island that was giving me so much. Leaving Midway a little better than it was when I got there was an important aspect of the trip -- and the next time I visit I can look at this full, thick patch of bunch grass and say I helped to create that.

Having opportunities like this is an invaluable part of sustainable eco-tourism. Volunteer efforts such as planting bunch grass, clearing invasive weeds from a sand dune, cleaning up a beach and other tasks is organized by Oceanic Society and serves as an example of efforts all tour groups should include in trips to fragile and important habitats.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Full Disclosure: Oceanic Society sponsored a portion of this trip to Midway. 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.

Tags: Conservation | longreads | Midway