Please Note: This blog contains a very small selection of my Midway Atoll photos! To see the full gallery with captions, please go here.
My apologies for being behind on blogging – I’m in the midst of moving both my residence and my blog while continually working. I didn’t get around to blogging about it here, but I did have the opportunity to tour the USNS Mercy on its way into Pearl Harbor before it departs to the South Pacific for its Pacific Partnership 2012 mission – you can check out those photos on my Facebook Page.
It’s a summer of change, as my husband just had his last official day in the U.S. Army a couple of days ago, so between fashion shoots, weddings, portrait sessions, and military adventures, we’ve been swamped with moving that had some complications, which has resulted in us needing to find a temporary rental for June before we move to our new permanent apartment in July. Thus, when I was first invited to attend the Battle of Midway’s 70th Anniversary ceremony on the isolated Midway Atoll (specifically Sand Island), I hesitated. As a daughter of conservation enthusiasts with a background in working with the Endangered Species Management at Haleakala National Park in my youth, I had always been curious about this distant Northwestern Hawaiian Island, but the stress of dealing with moving and having to shoot a wedding the day before the ceremony made the choice to go seem daunting.
“If you don’t go, you’re going to be very mad at yourself later,” said my husband, who knows me all too well. He assured me that he’d rally our friends to help with finishing the move if I went, and so I did.
The adventure started around midnight of June 4th at Hickam, and we left around 2:00am HST. Midway is actually an hour behind Hawaii in the time zone, and we arrived when it was still dark to avoid hitting birds while landing. The flight took about two hours and 24 minutes.
After landing, we took golf carts driven by the island’s Thai workers to the clinic, which was acting as the media center and miraculously had WiFi internet. A couple of Fish & Wildlife volunteers offered to take people out to photograph the sunrise, and of course I jumped at the chance. My escort and I drove out on the golf cart, dodging all the sleepy chicks in the road, going out to the harbor where I photographed the old sea plane hangar in front of the setting moon, and the sunrise from a pier. There was also a Laysan albatross chick right in front of the pier which ended up getting backlit portraits taken of him or her. It was incredible to think that 70 years prior, these skies were filled with battling planes.
After sunrise, I returned to the media center to catch up with fellow social media attendee Burt Lum of Bytemarks Cafe, and we headed over to the Midway House (former commanding officer residence) for breakfast before starting our pre-ceremony island explorations, which included observing white terns hovering about, and enjoying the morning light on North Beach, which is now my favorite beach I’ve ever been to.
By 9:30am, it was time to head to the ceremony site where the Battle of Midway memorial site is located in front of a large field. Speakers for the event included the Commander of Pacific Command, U.S. Navy Admiral Cecil Haney, and the Regional Director of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Robyn Thorson. The Battle of Midway resulted in significant losses for the Japanese fleet during World War II, heralding a turning point in the war for the United States.
It should be noted that Midways was also bombed on December 7th, 1941, killing 1st Lt. George H. Cannon, who was the first American Marine to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II.
Also in attendance were two U.S. Marine/Battle of Midway veterans in their 90s, John Miniclier (in blue) and Edgar Fox (in white with red cap). After the speakers were finished, these two men stood next to the memorial as the ceremony attendees lined up to shake their hands and leave flowers at the memorial. One rascally Laysan albatross chick seemed to think that the flowers and leis were new nesting material!
John Miniclier, in the image above, was wearing the very same metal helmet he wore during the Battle of Midway, 70 years prior. At the end of the ceremony, taps was played, and then the crowd moved over to the Visitor Center for the “ribbon-cutting” of the new Battle of Midway exhibit.
Then it was off to catch a boat in the harbor for a brief ceremony at sea to commemorate those lost. The veterans, military/Fish & Wildlife personnel, and family members were in the larger boat, while the media took photos and video from the smaller boat. The water was the most incredible clear blue I have ever seen. Unfortunately, though spinner dolphins frequent these waters, I didn’t get the chance to see any on this trip!
With the formal events of the day over with, it was then time for lunch at Captain Brooks Tavern next to North beach! I took the opportunity to spend a little bit of time resting on the beach because I had a nasty head cold and was feeling pretty worn out, but I mustered enough energy to walk down the beach, where I photographed the dancing red-tailed tropic birds, a crab, and even a monk seal basking in the sun – though I had to give the monk seal a super-wide berth as the law dictates. The blues in the next few photos are not exaggerated at all – with polarized sunglasses, this is exactly how it looks on a bright sunny day with a calm sea.
Feeling slightly refreshed from relaxing on the beach in a shady tent, and though I could have easily stayed there the rest of the day, I decided I needed to try to see as much of Midway as possibly for a day trip, so I ventured out and managed to catch a golf cart “taxi” around the various sites on the island. I got to see nesting red-tailed tropic birds, black-footed albatross adults and chicks, and even a very rare albino Laysan albatross chick.
A little lost on what to do next, I caught a golf cart to Turtle Beach, where three green sea turtles were cruising on the beach, and one monk seal was basking on the boat ramp, but since they are endangered the area was roped off and I couldn’t get very close for photos.
I ended up back at the harbor’s piers, and I bee-lined for the first Fish & Wildlife officer that I saw, asking them where I could find red-footed booby birds. They simply handed me a life vest, and I suddenly found myself on a small boat to Eastern island, the other larger island that makes up Midway Atoll. (The tiniest island is known as Spit Island)
Other passengers on the boat were guests of the event, one of whom had a relative memorialized on the Eastern Island Battle of Midway memorial, so they had specially requested to go out there to see it. As Eastern Island has been left for the birds exclusively, and only staff go out there for conservation work, it was an extremely special opportunity! I got to see a lot of different birds there, including the black noddy, the sooty tern, the red-footed booby, and the Laysan duck.
Because Eastern Island is much flatter than Sand Island, 60% of the island was washed over during the 2011 Japan tsunami, resulting in contamination of their duck ponds and the deaths of tens of thousands of birds. Luckily, the population has since bounced back, and the island is thriving besides a large population of the invasive Verbesina plant. I did find one Japanese bottle on the ground, but as Midway has always had Japanese trash washing up on their shores, I can’t be sure if it’s from the initial tsunami or not.
Ocean trash is a big problem for the wildlife refuge, as you can often find little piles of colorful plastic pieces on the ground. The grim reality of this is that an albatross chick once sat there, and died from eating the plastic chips, which are brought to them by the parents along with their squid and fish diet. The volunteers and works often also have to untangle fishing nets from the reefs and shores.
Once we returned to Sand Island, it was just about time for the barbecue dinner. I unfortunately don’t have any photos of this as I was absolutely starving and exhausted, but I had some amazing chicken wings and delicious curry over fried rice made with fresh, island-grown vegetables by the Thai head chef. Along with a glass of wine at Captain Brooks’ Tavern, it was the perfect meal for the end of the day.
Since there was a little bit of time to kill before we needed to head to the hangar, friend and photojournalist Marco Garcia and I went out onto North Beach one last time to photograph the sunset. Just as we were getting ready to leave, a monk seal went swimming past us along the shore toward the setting sun. I also stepped in front of the camera while it was on the tripod for a “me-on-Midway” photo…though it’s just my back as after a day of trudging around in the hot sun carrying a 30lb bag of gear and a tripod while suffering a bad cold left me less than photogenic!
Once it was dark, we took the golf cart caravan back to the hangar and boarded our waiting plane. However, my adventure wasn’t quite over – I got to sit in the cockpit for take-off! It was very interesting listening to how the pilots and crew had to wait for the ground team to make sure there were no birds on the runway before takeoff. I didn’t want to take too many photos and distract them, plus it was very dark, but here is one post-takeoff with the moon behind the window divider:
Overall, this was an incredible experience, and considering the limited permits for traveling to Midway Atoll, probably once-in-a-lifetime. Not only was Midway the location for the turning point in World War II for the U.S. after inflicting heavy losses on the Japanese fleet, it is to this day a sanctuary for several unique endangered species that thrive in the isolation.
I would like to particularly thank Pacific Fleet for inviting me to take part in this historic event!
Again, these were just a selection of my photos from this trip, so please head over to the gallery for the full set!
Interesting Facts/Links About Midway Atoll National Fish & Wildlife Refuge
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s History of Midway
- Wildlife Biologist Pete Leary’s Midway Atoll Blog – His account of life on Midway is very interesting!
- Article about Wisdom the Laysan Albatross, who at 60+ years old is the oldest living wild North American bird.
- Burt Lum’s Midway Atoll Flickr Gallery