I recently just returned from an amazing trip to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is wild and beautiful place that I had been dreaming of going to for years.Fortuitously, I had the amazing privilege of being invited by the NOAA (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) Marine Debris team. The marine debris team does an outstanding job of removing derelict fishing gear and other entanglement hazards from the reefs and shorelines of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) in order minimize the danger to the wildlife.
We were to fly up to Midway and spend two weeks there working. A ship would then pick us up to take us to all the other islands on its way back to Oahu. We were flown up there in style. I would like to imagine they were going all out to impress me, but in reality, only privately chartered flights can fly into Midway (no regular airlines goes there). Life of a jet setter… I wish lol. We flew out of Honolulu at sunset, so that we could land at Midway by nighttime. It’s crucial when flying to Midway to get there after dark, as this will minimize the risk of striking some of millions of birds that call the sanctuary home.
Upon disembarking from our flight, we were greeted by the pungent odor of guano which was carried by the night breeze. There are hardly any lights on Midway at night, as some birds (Petrels) are attracted to them and could literally kill themselves by running into them. As we were driven to our sleeping quarters, we were serenaded by a choir of of birds, which would have otherwise have gone unnoticed as they were invisible in the moonless darkness. We were to stay in Charlie “hotel”, an refurbished military barracks from World War II. I was actually surprised by the size and cleanliness of the rooms. They were larger then what I was accustomed to, back on Oahu.
I had no idea what I was in for when I woke up the following morning and walked outside. Laysan Albatrosses and there chicks, as far as the eye could see. They were nearly just as abundant on the ground as they were in the sky. Nearly every surface on the ground was being used a nesting site. I have never seen so many birds in all my life.
The rookies among our team (including me) were completely overwhelmed by the sheer density of birds (seemingly all albatrosses). My roommate, David Slater, who is a marine biologist and photographer nearly missed breakfast as he became stuck to the back of his camera’s viewfinder.
These majestic birds have huge wingspans (nearly 7ft). These birds seemed more like small airplanes compared to small pigeons, doves and Myna birds that I was used to on Oahu.
As these birds are only minimally exposed to humans and are “protected” at Midway, they had no fear of people. You could approach them and if you sat down, they would approach you. I had always wanted to get into bird photography, as I find them to be quite striking subjects. However, when you live in a city and are mostly surrounded by small birds, you rarely get a chance to approach a cool bird without spooking it before your shot (I don’t have any powerful telephoto lenses).
Albatrosses were nicknamed Gooney Birds by soldiers stationed on these island due to the animals seemingly awkward demeanor on land. Many a time we witnessed these birds crash land on their faces, land on other birds, hit trees and even trample other birds as they were getting a running start to take off.
Although the birds were sometimes silly, they were also quite inquisitive. They would often walk up to us as we were making our way down the foot path or sitting down to rest.
I would entitle this photo: “Siblings”. Unfortunately, unhatched eggs littered the surface of the islands. We had to be particularly careful of them on the beaches, as they would blend in with the sand. One wrong step and your foot would be covered in viscous, nauseating rotten egg yolk.
I incessantly tried to capture an image that would convey the amount of birds there were. But the images fall short in so many ways. I cannot even explain the amount of noise and the constant smell that permeated the wind. Interesting tidbit: Large atolls like Midway will sometimes have green clouds floating over the deeper part of their lagoons (seen in the upper right of this image), as the darker water reflects green light back onto the clouds above.
These little guys were always in the middle of the road. I can’t imagine that sitting on concrete all day would be as comfortable as lounging in the grass or sand, but certain chicks would be in the same spot of the road everyday we saw them.
The parent albatrosses spend a lot of time at sea, fishing. But when they return, it’s dinner time for the young chicks. The albatross parents were not super protective of their young. They did not mind us sitting at a reasonable distance to take photos.
However, mom will sometime remind us that we need to keep our distance and they would gently nudge us back or lightly nibble at us.
Midway is such an amazing place and I’m so glad it’s protected. I’m honored I got to go, as few people get such an opportunity. Hope you guys enjoy and follow along as I recount our epic trip!