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Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge has recently restarted their tourism program as of January 2008. Currently individuals can spend one to two weeks exploring the atoll, two of its three small islands, and surrounding coral reefs by signing up to be part of small group tours (maximum size 16 persons).
Midway is currently part of the Papahanaumokuakea National Monument, the worlds largest fully protected marine area in the world. Designated as a monument in 2006 primarily to protect the abundant intact coral reef systems and the associated species, many of them endemic to the island chain. Additionally Midway and the other islands that make up the Northwest Hawaiian Island chain have been recognize for many years as important reserves for seabird colonies. The islands with their diverse marine-life and seemingly fearless seabirds, have been compared to the Galapagos Islands.
Aside from its fascinating wildlife Midway Atoll is most notable for it's role in the battle for power in the Pacific during WWII. The battle of Midway is recognized by all as the "turning point" in the war of the Pacific. The history shaped by Midway, as well as the many veterans who fought in the battle or served there at other times will forever be remembered and memorialized by the Battle of Midway National Memorial designation that is also a distinct recognition of Midway Atoll.
Midway Atoll is a circular coral atoll about 5 miles in diameter. There are three islands, Spit, Eastern, and the largest Sand. Currently a small US Fish & Wildlife (USFWS) staff is stationed there along with about 45 employees of a subcontractor (Chugach) retained to operate the infrastructure, for a total year-round population of about 60 persons. Midway also has a fully functional 8000-ft runway that is FAA certified and maintained to serve as an emergency runway for two engine trans-Pacific jet flights.
Tourist groups will focus around the time of year that the Albatross populations are present on the islands, November through June. With over 2 million albatross nesting on about 1500 acres that is quite a natural spectacle to be part of.
March 2008 - Sand Island - Laysan Albatross
In addition to the three species of albatross, Laysan, Black-footed, and Short-tailed about 16 other seabirds nest on Midway. These include the Red-footed, Masked, and Brown boo bies, Great Frigatebird, Wedge-tailed and Christmas Shearwater, Bonin petrels, and the ethereal White Tern.
Midway is also home to about 300 resident Spinner Dolphins and has a breading population of the most endangered marine mammal found wholly within American waters, the Hawaiian monk seal. With a population of around 1100 individuals, and only found in the Hawaiian islands, 60 individuals reside at Midway. Green Sea turtles are also seen regularly at Midway and recently the first documented nest was sighted.
Green Sea Turtles Sunning of Sand Island 2008
Currently the main way to get to Midway Atoll is through a non-profit marine conservation organization based in San Francisco called Oceanic Society. Oceanic Society has a long history of involvement in bringing tourists to Midway as well as volunteers who contributed the the Fish and Wildlife programs relating to Historical restoration, habitat restoration, and monitoring research with seabirds, spinner dolphins and monk seals.
Oceanic trips are conducted under a permit that allows for one week long educational tours led by naturalists that have lived and worked on Midway Atoll in various capacities. The trips are land based, with visitors staying in modest but comfortable restored barracks. Rooms are private with Queen or single beds, electricity, running water, air-conditioning, and private bath. All meals are served buffet style and guests eat with the rest of the island residents (about 60 persons) at the "Clipper House" over looking the beautiful coral white sand beach on the North-side of Sand Island.
A typical one week visit starts in Honolulu at the charter air service that flies the group to Midway. Departing Honolulu around 400 PM the 16 passenger plane flies 4.5 hours, about 1200 miles northwest arriving at Midway just after dark. Visitors are taken to their rooms and given a short briefing. In the morning the USFWS rangers give a required orientation to the atoll and its wildlife. Over the next 7 days visitors will live among the albatross.
Sitting with the Albatross - Sand Island 2008
During the week visitors will have the opportunity to fully explore Sand Island both during guided tours and on their own. Bikes can be rented and visitors are given ample time to explore on their own. On one of the days the group will be taken to Eastern Island for a 1/2 day tour. Eastern Island is designated critical habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal and has stricter limits on its accessibility. During Nov. - March visitors on Eastern will have a good opportunity to see the Golden Gooney or Short-tailed Albatross.
Short-tailed Albatross with decoys on Eastern Island 2008
Eastern Island also offers good views of the Great Frigatebird and previously mentioned Boo bies. Additionally there are many historic markers along the tour reminding the visitor of the rich military history to be experienced at Midway.
Twice during the week participants will have the opportunity to snorkel and view the coral reefs at Midway.
Crystal Clear Waters and Rice Corals - Midway Lagoon 2008
The clear waters while home to a limited amount of coral species are host to a variety of fish, many endemic, and all usually quite larger than what is currently seen in the main Hawaiian Islands due to the relative lack of fishing pressure at Midway.
Giant Ulua - Midway Lagoon 2008
During the evenings lectures will help visitors to better appreciate the work that USFWS is doing on Midway and the various natural history and ecology of the Atoll ecosystem that they are bearing witness to. Opportunities to assist USFWS staff with beach clean-ups, invasive weed eradication, and native vegetation propagation will also be made available to interested individuals.
Most visits are for one-week however you can book trips back to back and stay longer if you like. Bookings for 2009 are available through Oceanic Society's website. Trips start in March and run through June, with two final trips available the last week of November and the first week of December.
Highlights of the various Months are outlined below
March - Peak numbers of albatross lots of dancing, chicks still downy, weather warming, water 69° to 72°
April - Same as above, weather getting warmer, more sunny days likely
May - Adults busy feeding chicks non paired juveniles less numerous - warm sunny days - chicks starting to feather
June - Many fewer adults, chicks getting ready to fledge, much warmer temperatures, possible Tiger Shark sightings
Nov - Cooler - Adult albatross mating and dancing, no chicks, egg laying starts - good chance for Short-tailed Albatross sighting
Dec - Coolest - Adults paired on nest, egg laying - good chance for Short-tailed Albatross sighting