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Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

PLEASE NOTE: Midway has been closed due to government budget cutbacks.

Without a doubt Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is a national treasure—one of the top wildlife spectacles to be found on Earth! Due to previous inaccessibility, this subtropical paradise is virtually unknown to nature photographers and wildlife watchers alike. A visit here is a fantastic opportunity for astounding wildlife experiences and incredible nature imagery!

Located 2,800 miles west-southwest of San Francisco, 2,200 miles east of Tokyo and 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu, the “Midway Islands” are appropriately named for their strategic location at the midpoint of the Pacific Ocean. Millions of nesting seabirds and shorebirds migrating from the Arctic find refuge here as, formerly, did the US Navy. The naval presence focused a great deal of public attention on this isolated outpost in mid-ocean and, indeed, Midway played a pivotal role in the outcome of World War II.

In spite of major disruption by war, US Navy operations, installation of giant airplane runways, and several obsolete commercial interests, Midway's birds have remained a constant and amazing presence. Eighteen seabird species that number nearly three million birds nest at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge each year—and of that number almost a million are Laysan albatrosses. Considering the size of the tiny islands, this is a truly enormous population of breeding birds. Today, the refuge supports the world’s largest nesting concentrations of Laysan and black-footed albatrosses, white terns and Bonin petrels.

When Navy personnel encountered the Laysan albatross during World War II, the bird's ungainly movements on land quickly earned it the nickname "gooney bird," and the name stuck. Adult Laysans can weigh more than seven pounds—with a six-foot wingspan. In the air the bird is supremely graceful, but on land it is awkward and unafraid, and visitors to the island have many close encounters with them and with remarkable black-footed albatrosses.

Other photogenic island nesters include red-tailed tropicbirds, Laysan ducks, white, gray-backed and sooty terns, black and brown noddies, red-footed boobies and great frigatebirds. In addition, the crystal-clear blue waters of Midway’s lagoon are home to spinner dolphins and green sea turtles—and endangered Hawaiian monk seals are frequently seen basking on the beaches. Migrant bristle-thighed curlews, Pacific golden plovers and ruddy turnstones forage across these islands, and wandering tattlers are found along the shoreline.

During our visit thousands of albatrosses can be seen “dancing” in electrifying courtship display as they size up a potential mate for future nesting. Fuzzy Laysan and black-footed chicks dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Fantastic aerial maneuvers of courting red-tailed tropicbirds and white terns dazzle all who see them—potential mates and appreciative photographers alike!

Bonin petrel burrows are ubiquitous and any soft soil becomes a labyrinth of tunnels containing each pair’s precious single egg. The arrival of thousands of these chattering “gadflies” at dusk heralds their unforgettable haunting of the nighttime sky. The removal of introduced rats from the refuge has doubled the present population to more than 70,000 pairs, and growing—but it’s still a fraction of historical population estimates.

“Midway” comprises two main islands—Sand Island and Eastern Island—plus tiny Spit Island. Sand Island is approximately two and a half square miles in size and is inhabited by birds, humans—and more birds. Eastern Island, at 335 acres, is populated only by wildlife. Both were designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1988. In 2006, Midway Atoll was named part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument—renamed Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It is the largest protected marine area in the world, and was recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Now, the old Navy barracks have been refurbished and visitors are quite comfortable in the only remote island refuge of this significance in the northern Pacific Ocean that is accessible to photographers. Transportation is on foot, bicycle or in an 8-passenger golf cart, with albatross chicks being the only roadway obstacles. The food services are fantastic. The wealth of species—and sheer numbers of wildlife here—compares to some of the most incredible locations in Antarctica and the Arctic. Yet, the temperatures are balmy; snorkeling with tropical fish and sea turtles is possible, and the birds are extraordinarily accessible. In fact, the lawn of every remaining house on the island is covered with nesting seabirds!

Here, by special permit, our small group will be the only guests! Few photographers have had the pleasure to access to such a rich variety of seabirds in one place, with amazing flexibility to observe them at your leisure and in very surprising comfort. Join us for a week with the gooney birds in this remarkably remote—and incredibly spectacular—part of the world.

Learn more about Midway:

Day 1

Participants meet this afternoon at an air charter hangar located at the Honolulu airport for our flight to Midway. We depart late in the afternoon on our chartered Gulfstream G-2B corporate jet and arrive at Midway after dark to minimize disturbance and contact with the throng of nesting seabirds surrounding the runway. Charter flight details will be furnished in our final tour information packet. (Sandwich snack on flight)

Day 2

The morning begins by stepping outside of our simple, but very comfortable, accommodations to see the masses of birds for the first time. Laysan albatrosses are everywhere, nesting within two feet of our building and seemingly stretching to the horizon. We enjoy a welcome slide presentation about Midway Atoll’s wildlife and intriguing history from the US Fish and Wildlife Service ranger. We provide several shared 8-passenger “stretch” golf carts for our group and, for individual photographic flexibility, walking and bicycling are other options. Following orientation we obtain bicycles for those who wish to rent them. A brief island tour follows lunch as we take the golf carts around the periphery of Sand Island’s 1,200 acres to get the lay of the land—and the lay is extraordinarily flat! Afterwards we are free to photograph the multitude of birds and other wildlife. As with all of our Photo Safaris, early morning and evening light comprise our prime photo sessions, leaving midday for additional photography, relaxing or downloading images—there is amazing flexibility here—and the pace is yours to set! (BLD)

Days 3–7

On Sand Island, spectacular opportunities to photograph Laysan and black-footed albatrosses, red-tailed tropicbirds, white terns, sandy beaches, churning waves and electric blue water are everywhere. We see numerous green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals. Comical albatross chicks offer endless photography opportunities. On one of these days we visit close-by Eastern Island, weather permitting. We travel by US Fish and Wildlife Service boat across the narrow channel where we may see pods of spinner dolphins as they ride the bow. Eastern Island has sustained a longer period of recovery from human disturbance than Sand Island and, as a result, it hosts nesting colonies of several species that have not returned to Sand Island, including red-footed and (rare for Midway) masked and brown boobies, and sooty and gray-backed terns. Great frigatebirds will be courting—the red gular pouches of the males inflated to entice the discerning females flying overhead. For birders, Eastern Island is currently the best place to observe a “golden gooney”—a short-tailed albatross (one of the world’s rarest albatrosses) in the AOU area. (BLD)

Day 8

We enjoy our last day on the island before flying to Honolulu. We provide rooms and transportation to a convenient airport hotel as part of the tour package. Our flight departs Midway in the evening, after dark, and arrives in the very early morning hours of Day 9. (BLD)

Day 9

Depart for home today. The hotel provides a free shuttle service to the airport.

Tour Details

March 18–26, 2013 and April 1–9, 2013
$7,495 from Honolulu, Hawaii
Includes charter airfare from Hawaii to Midway

Special Terms & Conditions Apply

"This was a tremendous photographic experience and wonderful exposure to an important part of US history."
—J. Drouilhet

"It is a significant photo opportunity, one of a kind."
—L. Yeakel

"I was amazed at the number and density of birds. Their lack of fear and the really cute chicks made the experience comparable to South Georgia. That and Joe's intimate knowledge of the natural cycles of the island made this a great experience."
—S. Henry

"Midway is a must for bird photographers, especially those with an affinity to pelagic birds."
—E.J. Peiker

"If you enjoy photographing birds, Midway is the best there is! Every behavior from courtship to flight can be seen and photographed. It’s great for practicing flight shots."
—L. Barnes

"An extraordinary experience, in my opinion better than Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island."
—C. Kingsley

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. P.O. Box 655, Vashon Island, Washington USA 98070
Phone: (206) 463-5383 Fax: (206) 463-5484 Email: info@photosafaris.com
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