Donna Knutson, September 16, 2010


NOAA Teacher at Sea Donna Knutson
NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette
September 1 – September 29, 2010

Mission:  Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey
Geograpical Area: Hawaii
Date: September 16, 2010

Midway

It is hard to smile wearing a mask!

September 16, 2010 
Teacher at Sea:  Donna Knutson
Ship Name:  Oscar Elton Sette

Mission and Geographical Area:  

The Oscar Elton Sette is on a mission called HICEAS, which stands for Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey.  This cruise will try to locate all marine mammals in the Exclusive Economic Zone called the “EEZ” of Hawaiian waters.  The expedition will cover the waters out to 200 nautical miles of the Hawaiian Islands.

Data such as conductivity, temperature, depth, and chlorophyll abundance will be collected and sea bird sittings will also be documented.

Science and Technology:
Latitude: 28○  22.6’ N
Longitude: 177○ 28.5’ W  
Clouds:  6/8 Cu, Ci
Visibility:  10 N.M.
Wind:  8 Knots
Wave height:  3-4 ft.
Water Temperature:  28.0○ C
Air Temperature:  26.8○ C
Sea Level Pressure:  1020.2 mb
History:

Memorial surrounded by Bonin petrel underground nests.

Midway is the second to the last island in the line of islands/atolls extending northwest of Hawaii.  Midway has a lot of history dating back to 1859 when it was first discovered by Captain N. C. Brooks.  The island, called Sand Island, at that time was nothing but sand and an occasional tuft of grass with birds everywhere.

In 1870 after the Civil War it was felt necessary to have access to Midway for political reasons and a company was hired to cut a path through the coral for steam engine ships to come and refuel.  It became too costly and never was finished.
On 1903 the Pacific Commercial Cable Company set to work to provide communication between Guam, Waikiki, Midway and San Francisco.  At this time President Theodore Roosevelt put Midway under the protection of the Navy because of Japanese poachers.  The workers for the cable company became the first planned settlement on Midway.
 In 1935 Pan American Airlines built a runway and refueling station for their Flying Clipper seaplane operation. They also helped the little community prosper as they transferred goods between Manila and Wake and Guam.

An inside corridor to the Naval facility.
The pictures were still on the wall.

Midway was made famous in 1942 during World War II.  The island had been named Midway as it is “midway” between the continental United States and Japan.  The United States had naval control over the island for approximately thirty years, but it wasn’t until 1938 that the Navy made it into a full naval base.
They hauled in over a hundred tons of soil in order to plant gardens and trees,  to make it appear more like home, and also to build roads and piers.   The navy base at one time housed ten thousand people, and was a very important strategic base.  Hawaii was at risk from an invasion from Japan and Midway was added defensive support.
The Japanese recognized Midway as a threat and attacked it on June 4-6, 1942.  It was a fierce battle with many fatalities.  It was reported that the Japanese lost 2,500 soldiers while the United States lost 320.  The victory of the Battle at Midway was a major turning point in WWII.

The airstrip has not been used since the ’60’s.

After the war ended there was less need for the Midway Naval Base.  Most of the people left Midway 1950, leaving behind buildings with the holdings intact.  In 1988 the military released the island to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Midway became a national park and refuge to protect the shorebirds, seabirds, and threatened and endangered species.
The upkeep of the naval base has fallen on the shoulders of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  They have torn down some of the buildings constructed before 1950 that are not repairable.  The fish and wildlife service is making room for more birds by clearing out some of the ironwood trees which have overgrown the island.  There are sixty-three places on Midway that are considered eligible for National Historic Landmarks.

Dr. Tran and Stephanie riding ahead of me on the old runway.
The trees were filled with common myna birds.

In addition to the historical significance of Midway, many animals find a sanctuary within the atoll.  Nineteen species of birds, approximately two million birds, nest on Midway.  In the water there are about two-hundred fifty spinner dolphins, the threatened green sea turtles, about sixty endangered Hawaiian monk seals, more than two-hundred sixty-five species of fishes, and forty plus species of stony corals that make Midway atoll home.
Resources:
Isles of Refuge, Wildlife and History of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, by Mark J. Rauzon, copyright 2001.

A white tern chick.
White terns lay an egg without a nest.
The chick must have strong feet to hold on to it’s
precarious perch.

Personal Log:
Today I am lucky enough to go to Midway!  I have read up on it and expect not only to see a beautiful destination with an abundance of wildlife, I will be seeing first hand a historical site few people have had the pleasure to explore.
My swimming suit is under my clothes so I’m also ready to try out the beaches! Mills and Chris are escorting me, Dr. Tran and the XO, Stephanie, on the small boat to the island. Mills has to weave in and out because of all the coral.  Mills is one of the few who have had the opportunity to see Midway and he is giving us last minute advice.
We are met at a small dock by John, a warden for the U.S. Wildlife Service, he is going to be our tour guide. As I watch the small boat head back to the Sette, I can’t help thinking that it feels like the beginning of one of those “stranded” movies. This is not what I pictured.  There is trash everywhere.  To the right I see the rocky shore littered with garbage. Plastics everywhere, all shapes and sizes right next to the sparkling clean water.  Ugh!  Piles of twisted metal are heaped in piles twenty feet high.  Then there are the piles of uprooted trees and old lumber.  I guess it is organized waiting to be hauled out, but I didn’t see any of that in the literature I read.

I am standing on the deck at”Captain Brooks”.
It was named after the man who claimed the island for the United States.
This was my first view of North Beach!

Unfortunately the garbage people throw out to sea is being collected on the atolls and banks of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  Crates, buckets, balls, anything and everything imaginable that is made from plastic is showing up on these unpopulated, remote islands.  It is the currents that carry the debris to the islands and the corals and beaches trap and collect the material.  Very sad.  People are so uncaring and oblivious to what they do daily to the environment.
John is very friendly and laid back, ok, I don’t feel like the star in one of those silly sci-fi movies I love to watch, any longer.  We three hop on a Kawasaki “mule” and head away from the dock.  Most of the buildings we pass are left-overs from the war, rusty, broken windows and even bullet holes.  John drives up to the Visitor Center/Office.  He gives us a general briefing on how things work there and mentions some of the sites we should see, and off we go again.  Now our mode of transportation is a golf cart.  He shows us where we can go on our own and tells us where not to go – the air strip.  Now I’m thinking “bad movie plot” again.

John described how the cannons were bolted to the center.
At that time there were no trees and the guns were aimed at the Japanese ships in the ocean.

He gives us bikes and we start our own tour.  We need to stay on paths or roads because the land is covered with holes for Bonin petrels.  They are nocturnal birds and burrow underground to nest and lay their eggs.  At one time Midway had a rat problem and they ate the chicks and eggs, so now that they have been eliminated, this is a true bird paradise.  It is fun to ride around and look leisurely at the island.
Doc had been there before so he was in the lead.  As we look around at the wonderful wildlife the ground is also littered with small plastic objects.  I see a toothbrush, a lighter, and bottle tops all over!  Other plastic objects with strange shapes seem to catch my eye. What is going on?
Doc explains to me that the albatross that go to feed in the ocean will see something resembling a fish, swoop down to get it and bring it back to shore for its offspring.  Once regurgitated, the fledgling may also eat it and then die with a stomach full of plastic.  Great!  Where is this plastic coming from?  Why hasn’t it stopped?  I am told later that tons of trash washes up every year.  Ugh!  Back to our tour.

A monk seal basking in the sun at “Rusty Bucket”.

Little white terns are above us following us on our paths. There are so many trees! From once an island with only a few tufts of grass, and now seventy years later, Midway has a forest.  It smells musty, old and slightly sweet, if you didn’t look too close, you would think you had fallen back in time.
We head for the beach!  Nothing eerie about the beach!  Absolutely spectacular! Soft white sand bordered by lush, thick leaved tropical plants.  The water was so clear, not a rock, not a piece of garbage, if it hadn’t been for the four beach chairs you could have imagined discovering an untouched pristine utopia.  I could not help but stand and stare at the soft pale turquoise water.  It felt as good as it looked.  We all loved our limited time playing in the water as though we were kids in the biggest swimming pool imaginable.

One of the machine shops.
All the tools were left behind.

Unfortunately we had to get back to the Visitor Center so we trodded up the incline back to the bikes.  With John on the golf cart, we resumed out guided tour.  One of the first places we go is the “rusty bucket”.  It is a site along the shore where ships and other vehicles have been left.  We see a basking Monk seal.  Monk seals are nearly extinct, they only live on the shores of the Hawaiian Archipelago.
John shows us where the large cannons were bolted to shoot into the bay, a graveyard of the early inhabitants, and in town many old buildings.  Some of the shops have all the tools still in them.  It is as if it is being left just so, waiting for the people to return and continue their projects.
One of the buildings that is still in pretty good shape is the theater.  It has all the old felt covered seats, the wood floors and the dull yellow colored walls you see in old movies. The stage is still intact and you can almost picture the place full of people watching Bob Hope perform.  He stayed at Midway entertaining the troops off and on throughout the war.  John gives us a great tour, but has other jobs to do, so we are alone once again to fend for ourselves.  Where do we go…the beach!

It is called North Beach.  A Coast Guard ship has docked on the other side of the beach around a corner.  I just lay and float trying to appreciate every second I have been given!  A green sea turtle swims up to check out the strange humans and off he goes.  They are threatened and this is a refuge for him.  Mills has lent me his snorkel and fins so off to explore I go.  We are within the atoll and can see waves crash on the corals miles away.  No risk of anything catching you off guard with such great visibility.

The movie theatre still decorated with the original pictures.

It was truly spectacular! The Sette is coming back to the area and the small boat will be coming to get us soon.  We head back to the dock.  On the radio Stephanie hears we have one more hour to be tourists.  John suggests snorkeling by the cargo pier and that sounds wonderful to me!
Stephanie and I jump off the pier to the water fifteen feet below.  The water is thirty feet deep and looks and feels wonderful!  There are fish of all shapes and sizes!  I feel as though I am swimming in a giant aquarium.
 I even saw a sleeping green sea turtle on a broken pier support.  Incredible!  We were weaving in and out of the pier supports looking all the way down thirty feet and seeing everything crystal clear.
All good things come to an end and our little vacation at Midway was over.  Doc, Stephanie and I had a “fabulous” time!  The small boat was back.  It was time to go back home to the Sette.

Midway is definitely a place of contrasting sites and interests.
I leave with mixed emotions, which are the seeds for memories, of a place I will never forget.

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