Midway Atoll 2012 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Apr 20, 2012

Our 2012 Midway trips were absolutely spectacular—but you knew I was going to write that! Everyone who traveled with us this year to photograph the atoll was simply blown away by the incredible bird spectacle that is Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

So instead of writing a play by play of all the things we did on Midway this year, I am going to submit this trip review as a hard core sales piece to convince you that you need to go there in 2013 and then, at the end of this blog piece, tell you a little about what we saw and photographed.

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is awesome! Not simply interesting, or mildly photogenic, or charming in its remote-white-sand-beach-and-electric-blue-water kind of way. Midway, as one of the world’s most incredible bird spectacles is totally knock-your-socks-off awesome!! You know, as director of Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris I can pick and choose virtually anywhere in the world to spend time photographing during the year. But I choose to spend a month of my annual travel time leading consecutive tours to the atoll because I covet the opportunity to spend that much time on Midway!

Right now, photographers traveling to Midway get in on the ground floor of the “good old days” of Midway. Years from now, when photographers get together to talk about places they’ve been and the amazing photography opportunities they USED to have, when they talk about the good old days on Midway—they will be talking about NOW!

This year fewer than 300 travelers and students will have had the privilege of spending a week discovering and photographing the three million albatrosses and other birdlife on Midway. Compare that to the 175,000 people who will visit the Galápagos during the same period and you can see what a rare opportunity it is to visit this extraordinary national wildlife refuge that is also steeped in highly compelling World War II history. Imagine only 16 photographers having the Galápagos to themselves for over a week—that’s what Midway feels like TODAY!

You fly to Midway on a chartered private corporate jet. How many times in your life will you ever fly to a photo shoot in a private jet? You arrive on Midway mysteriously under the cover of darkness to avoid collision with the albatrosses who, as dusk turned to night have settled in for the evening. In the headlights of the 8-passenger golf cart limousines that we use to get from the jet to our hotel, the ghostly shapes of white Laysan albatrosses appear and you begin to realize the sheer immensity of Midway’s bird population—even in the black of night!

The next morning you awaken to the cacophony of two million courting albatrosses and the horde of tens of thousands of gnome-like albatross chicks covering the landscape from horizon to horizon.

Particularly for bird shooters, Midway comes as close to being the proverbial “photographer’s paradise” as you can get—and I really dislike using that cliché when I describe a trip. Even for the most seasoned travelers, Midway is a jaw-dropping place. I get a lot of pleasure walking to breakfast with a new group on their first morning—and watching their smiles and hearing their laughter as they try to comprehend the scene just outside of the hotel doorway.

Unlike other seabird colonies you may have visited, Midway does not smell like one! In fact it is almost odor free—as the islands are essentially sand piles that absorb the guano after every rain. Because of the lack of poop on the ground or that characteristic seabird colony smell, photographers can easily lay on the ground next to the birds for eye-to-eye level shots with the adults and chicks. It is not uncommon to look around and see everyone lying on the ground as if some terrible photographer massacre had taken place!

If you’re worried about accommodations in a former Navy barracks—don’t be! The refurbished hotel-style rooms are big, many are suites and the beds are comfortable. Several free washers and dryers are available to keep your clothes clean during your stay. Each room is wired for the Internet and also has satellite television. Your in-room refrigerator is stocked with free juices and soft drinks; coffee, tea and hot chocolate are available 24/7 in the lobby. Alcoholic beverages can be purchased in “Captain Brooks Pub” or the small grocery store. Meals usually offer 4 or 5 deliciously-cooked entrees, and because of the large population of Thai workers on the atoll, wonderful Thai food (in addition to the American-style choices) is available at every meal.

With the exception of limited tent camping in Alaska, there is no other US national wildlife refuge that offers overnight accommodations. Not even in Galápagos or on some of the sub-Antarctic Islands, can you be on shore when the thousands of nocturnal petrels return and you have the flexibility to step outside to see the spectacle at dusk. Midway is unique in the world!

Midway National Wildlife Refuge has severe budgetary problems. Because of that, virtually every year there is an underlying threat that the “visitor program” could be eliminated due to a lack of funding. Maintaining Midway’s infrastructure is very expensive and some within the upper echelons of US Fish and Wildlife Service do not see visitation, and its cost, as one of the higher priorities of the agency’s mandate—especially in today’s economic climate! So I expect that, barring a windfall from the Department of the Interior, sooner or later that cut in visitation will become a reality. It’s happened before. Although first opened to the public in 1996, travelers really didn’t start visiting in any numbers until 1998, before Midway was closed again from 2002 to 2008. Open to most of us for only 4 years!

Instead of making an annual “the world is ending” pitch as I watch the refuge’s operating budget reduced every year since visitation has reopened, I hope this report will be a compelling reason for you to visit this incredible national wildlife refuge. Midway is spectacular, it is unique, it is a national treasure most of us in the United States are completely unaware belongs to us! The “good old days” on Midway are now! You can easily get there with us, there are wonderful accommodations, and it is easy for those Baby Boomers who are “slowing down” to explore the atoll using shared golf carts, bicycles or walking on flat ground. Photograph there now so you, too, can talk about the good old days on Midway! Avoid kicking yourself for missing this incredible opportunity!

So what interesting news happened this year? Those of us who return to Midway annually (some clients have been 2 to 4 times) were surprised to see how effective Bio-Tech Greg Schubert and his crew have been in removing Verbesina and other invasive plant species from some areas on Sand Island—Greg is one driven man! But there is still much to be done!

Midway was atypically windy throughout our trips which created some chilly (by Hawaiian standards) mornings, but offered amazing flight shots as albatrosses fly at their best with a bit of wind under their wings.

At a cursory look, you’d never know the effects of the March 2011 Japanese tsunami on Midway. Areas wiped clean of more than 100,000 Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks were totally repopulated with this year’s batch of chicks that hatched in January. Plants had sprung up throughout the “tsunami zone.” Lots of native species were present following the salty bath the tsunami had produced, but Verbesina seeds were also stirred up in the mix and were sprouting in profusion on Eastern Island—the hardest hit of the two “big” islands.

The pair of short-tailed albatrosses nesting on Eastern Island had produced another chick. The male that hangs out on Sand Island had returned and another newly arrived four year old that had been banded on Japan’s Torishima Island could be seen on an almost daily basis “walking around town and hanging out” at the theater.

We found more black noddy and white tern nests in the ironwood trees than last year (there were virtually none in 2011 due to two almost hurricane-force storms early in the year). This year, a relatively large heronry of cattle egrets was establishing itself on Eastern Island. As another introduced species, the addition of cattle egrets to Midway’s avifauna is not a particularly good thing as they will eat small tern chicks.

And for birders, a few migratory strays were seen during our trips including two peregrine falcons, a gray-tailed tattler, a black brant (first record for Midway) and several ducks, including northern pintails and American and European widgeons.

I’ll bet close to half a million photos were made during our 2012 season. But come see for yourself!