Day 13 – The Final Farewell

January 28, 2012

 

I am sitting in the Chicago airport as I write this. I just could not bring myself to write a goodbye to Midway Atoll on Midway Atoll. I almost cannot remember what I did that day (and “that day” seems so long ago even though it was only two days ago); it is all a blur of not wanting to leave and missing Midway before I was even gone.

I know my last day consisted of walking on the beach one last time, of saying goodbye to the monk seals and sea turtles, the white sand beaches and crystal blue water, every last one of the albatross.

By now, all of these things are familiar to me. I had no idea what was in store for me before I came to Midway, but now I know. Midway is a place of wonder, a place of success and a place of struggle. We saw conservation in action at all levels and witnessed what happens when three separate government agencies attempt to work together for the greater good of the environment. We saw what happens when history coincides with environmental needs and managers have to determine which side wins.

Everyday, I woke up to the sounds of Albatross dancing, walked the dirt roads around the island witnessing the remnants of a historic battle, walked the beach and saw the effects of people miles upon miles away as the beautiful turquoise waves rolled in and the monk seals lazily snoozed on the white sand. I saw the dedication of people working far from home to protect what they believe in, an atoll with character and personality that would waste away without their help.

Midway’s issues are the issues that we, as Nicholas School students, will face in the very near future. They are the issues talked about in class as well as issues we never could have imagined before witnessing Midway. Either way, after this experience, we are much better prepared.

This class in Midway is one of the most expensive travel courses the Nicholas School offers. But was it worth it? Every penny. I networked, I surveyed, I discussed, I thought, I felt and now I am ready to act.

Classes can only take you so far. Professors share their experiences in hopes to convey to you the knowledge you need to survive in our field of work. But you never really know until you are there, until you have those experiences yourself, because you never know how you will react until you are put in a specific situation.

The birds, seals, turtles, fish, people and issues won over my heart. I struggle to write this because it is difficult to put into words how Midway makes you feel. And that is also one of the issues Midway faces: how to convey to people that have not been there why we should work so hard to save it.

Before leaving Honolulu for Midway, a previous student told us that Midway had changed her. At the time, that statement simply got me even more excited for the trip – which I did not even know was possible. Today, I realize the full extent of what she meant.

Midway changes you. Obviously, we are all passionate about environmental conservation (otherwise, we would not be in this degree); however, Midway instills a deeper passion. So often we hear of the failures of conservation, of the hard work and seemingly impossible job we have in front of us. Midway is a living example of success, giving us hope and telling us not all is in vain.

Back on the mainland, I sit in Starbucks sipping coffee that is definitely higher quality than what is on Midway but still tastes bitter because I am not drinking it while looking out over the vast Pacific. I listen to music that does not compare to the melodies of the birds. My scratches, a testament to the planting and work I put into the island, are already fading. I write in hopes to convey the sense of amazement I felt on Midway. Just read the class blog if you need more testimony.

I do not know what my future holds. As I work towards graduation and the prospect of getting a job, only one thing is certain. I will always have Midway and I will be a better environmental manager because of this experience.

As always, check out the class blog for more pictures and such. I am putting my pictures up on Facebook as well.

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Day 12 – Getting to Work

January 27, 2012

 

It turns out every morning is an early morning on Midway Atoll. This time, we were getting up to help the volunteers survey albatross plots. These plots were set up in order to sample a small part of the population of birds here to make generalizations for the whole population; this is a typical technique in science.

We were split into four groups so as not to stress out the birds with a dozen people tramping through their space. After arriving at the plot, the volunteer explained the procedure. One person writes down the information while the other person calls out the number assigned to the nest and then prods the bird on the nest to be able to read the band on the leg of the bird as well as whether the bird is sitting on an egg or if the egg has hatched. The quality of the egg is also recorded – whether the egg is fully intact, pipping (the chick is starting to hatch) or broken.

Unfortunately, there are times when birds continue to incubate the egg even though it is broken. There are also abandoned nests, which are recorded, and help to determine the survivorship of the population of albatross on the island. Midway’s nesting population is the largest in the world.

Typically, lunch is the same old same old of delicious food and small talk. Today, however, we spent lunch at Midway House, the main house on the island currently reserved for the refuge manager, presently Sue Schulmeister.

I went into lunch expecting to have time to ask Sue questions about the island’s management system – something we had already heard a good bit about but would still be interesting to hear her perspective. However, that is not what Sue had in mind. She started off letting us eat and answering simple questions and then moved on to a list our names. Going down the list she asked each of us a question.

Some questions were less involved – what was your favorite part of the trip? – while some questions were downright tough. Mine happened to be, “What do you think is the main issue facing the refuge and how do you propose we solve it?” Not an easy endeavor. My answer involved a discussion of the management issues – currently, Fish and Wildlife Service manage the island jointly with National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the State Department of Hawaii. At the ground level on Midway, these organizations work well together. However, at higher levels there is almost no cooperation and many people making decisions for the refuge have never even been to Midway!

Discussion followed, involving how best to communicate the main points of the atoll to visitors and how to get people who have not visited the atoll to fall in love with its inhabitants. Obviously, I suggested social media; allowing people and students to friend an albatross or monk seal on Facebook and post updates of where the animal is and what they are doing would be a great way to get users to interact with the refuge, in my opinion.

The afternoon followed with the typical ironwood eradication, this time in the rain. By now we were pros. Sawing the ironwood and spraying the leftover stumps took what seemed like no time at all. Today was easier to stop – enough rain and enough falling in petrel holes (burrowing birds) and having to get down in the wet sand to dig the holes out caused us to want nothing but a hot shower and dinner.

We ended the night with the Chugach band one last time. If I have not mentioned them before, they are a group of Thai guys that work on the island and play in a band. Their set list consists of about 10 songs, including: Leaving on a Jet Plane (not sure which version…it’s unique), La Bamba, Hotel California and Country Road; if you can, try and picture a group of Thai guys with varying degrees of mastery of the English language, all singing slightly off key. It is awesome. Then, every once in awhile they throw in Thai songs. All in all, it was a perfect last night.

For pictures and another perspective on the day, go here!

Day 11 – Snorkeling and Sawing

January 26, 2012

 

Early morning on the island. I trekked over to the Clipper House for breakfast before the sun had even started to show itself. Grabbing breakfast I headed back to the barracks to join Adam, the PA on the island, for a run.

Running around the usual path to the other side of the runway, with a few extra twists and turns, we discussed what it was like to live on the island full time. Adam was on a three-month stint on the island and had been there since December.

Sadly, he told me the novelty of the albatross’ wears off and that it gets very boring on the island. I do not know if I believe him about the novelty of the birds, but I could definitely understand how the island could be sort of boring with only 60 people on the island at any one time (excluding visitors like us).

Getting back in time to change and head to the boat, I was ecstatic about the idea of snorkeling on the inner reef again. We boated out to the eastern side of the atoll, a new location.

Hopping in the water I was prepared for the usual cold shock to my body, the shortness of breath before calming down and sticking my head in to explore the depths. However, this time it did not happen. The water was oddly comforting – almost as if I had become so accustomed to it and welcomed it.

Immediately there were fish surrounding me. Bright colors darted by – parrot fish larger than I had ever seen, schools of small yellow-striped fish, coral of all shapes and sizes – I could not decide where to look and where to go first. The shallow water allowed light to penetrate all the way down to the bottom where the colors shone.

Unicorn fish swam by to say hello and other fish I have never seen before checked me out. Lying still in the water I could hear the parrotfish chomping on the coral. The waves crashed over my head and carried me to a shallow reef. Trapped in the water a school of fish circled around me brightly darting past.

Jacks of all sizes and colors swam into the swarms of fish, attempting to grab a bite to eat. Fish swam into the crevices in the rocks as we dove down to check them out. This snorkeling site was so much more active than the last place!

The water started to get colder but I did not want to get out. I was not ready to leave the world of these fish. But finally, I decided it was time, pulled off my fins and my mask and started up the ladder. Instead, I turned and jumped back into the water for more time.

Finally, we were all back in the boat and headed back to shore. The whole way back we discussed the fish we had seen, fighting the current and an overall amazing experience.

After lunch, we headed out to the beach to take on more invasive plant species. This time, our opponent was Ironwood trees, a type of evergreen that was originally brought in to decrease the wind on the island. Now, they are taking over and overpopulate the natives.

Fighting our way through the scratchy Naupaka – a native to the island and important for protecting the shore line – it wove its way around our legs attempting to hold us back. Apparently, it did not understand that we were trying to give it more room to grow.

One student sawed down the trees while others sprayed herbicide. The blue plant killer – mild and completely safe for birds and humans alike – stained our skin and showed up in the most random places.

Hours later we were still going. We could not stop – every time we tried, we kept saying, just one more tree. It was addictive

This whole island is addictive.

For great pictures (even some underwater ones) go to the class blog.

Day 10 – Seek and Find

January 25, 2012

 

This morning was almost too early. The boat leaving for Eastern Island was departing at 7:15am so that meant up, ready and have eaten breakfast all before 7am. But it was worth it. Over on Eastern we watched the sun rise and break through the clouds from the earlier rain. A rainbow hung over us as the morning progressed, watching over our work.

I was with a volunteer and another student to survey Laysan ducks at the freshwater seeps. We had broken away from the larger Duke group in order to help with this important task. Laysan ducks are originally from Laysan island – another island in the chain – and are thought to have once inhabited Midway atoll.

Surveying entailed walking to a seep, counting total number of ducks and noting if there were any migratory species of ducks (this means carefully sneaking up on the seeps; the migratory species are very jumpy). While making observations, we noted whether any ducks flew away or flew in to the seep. Our observations consisted of quietly waiting by the water’s edge with binoculars in order to see which ducks were banded – and count the number of banded versus unbanded ducks – and then to read the bands, if possible. The bands were either little and metal or colored anklets around the ducks legs. The colored bands were much easier to read; the metal bands were almost impossible.

After surveying all three seeps on Eastern Island (there are 12 seeps on Sand Island, so their survey took much longer) we further explored the island. Taking pictures of albatross and their chicks – which are now starting to hatch more and more every day – and searching for new birds and glass floats. Still no luck on glass floats but we did see a pair of Masked Boobies.

These boobies seemed to be nesting, which was exciting, however, upon closer examination we determine the egg to be an albatross egg. It is common for birds to sometimes get confused as to which egg is theirs and even what is an egg; we saw an albatross just moments later attempting to incubate a plastic stake in the ground.

Hopping on the boat to take us back to Sand Island I waved goodbye to the blue waters of this uninhabited place; most likely, we will not return to Eastern Island.

But by the afternoon I had forgotten all about Eastern Island. I was on an adventure with Tracy Wurth, the monk seal biologist, to survey Sand Island for monk seals. We were joined by another student who has a background in seal biology working with Stellar Sea Lions in Alaska and Washington; she has already accompanied Tracy but was coming to gain even more experience.

Surveying with Tracy meant we could bypass the 150 feet rule (staying 150 feet away from monk seals so as not to disturb them) and possibly watch as she bleached the seals, or even help out – bleaching the seals allows for easy identification for the rest of the season, or year.

Walking the closed beaches, we spotted monk seal tracks – swishy-looking marks in the sand – and followed them to find seals. Once found, we approached cautiously making sure the seal was really zonked out on the sand. We looked for tags in order to identify the seal and take pictures of any unique markings to compare with past pictures.

In the back of our minds (or at least mine and Katie’s, the other student) we were searching for glass floats. Tracy has an amazing knack for finding these floats and closed beaches are the perfect area to find them.

Katie looked out in the distance and pointed at what she thought was a seal. Tracy replied by taking Katie’s arm and pointing down at the sand. Confused, Katie searched around while my eyes went to the greenish glass poking its way out of the surrounding whiteness.

I had found a glass float! Ok, so maybe Tracy did the finding but the point is that I was in possession of a float! Small, tinted green with bryozoans taking over, it was beautiful.

Continuing on, the float made me slightly less jealous when Katie got to bleach the first seal. The process of mixing the bleach (Clairol hair product), making sure it is the perfect consistency to not clog up the bottle but not run down the seal’s back, and tiptoeing through the sand to sneak up on the seal without waking it. The procedure went off without a hitch…until the seal decided to roll over as they were walking away. Most likely, the markings will just be slightly squished but still be readable.

We came upon another seal completely passed out, laying on its side. Tracy turned to me and asked me if I wanted to help bleach the seal. Of course I did! Nervously, I crawled up behind Tracy as she made the first mark. Careful not to touch the seal (it will immediately wake him up as one student found out) I wrote, upside down, “09” shaking like crazy. Crawling away, it was one of the most amazing experiences.

We finished the survey, finding 15 total seals including the seal that was bit by a shark and still survived. She’s doing well but we are worried she will not be able to heal the gaping hole in her blubber layer.

Cloud 9 could not describe my feelings. Bleaching a seal and finding a glass float all in one day!

Day 9 – Arts and Crafts

January 24, 2012

 

Today was a lazy fun day. Waking up in time for breakfast but not unbelievable early I enjoyed chatting with the Fish and Wildlife Service employees over eggs. Heading back to the barracks I strolled along the albatross and said hello to my now long time friends.

This morning’s activity was arts and crafts with marine debris. When we cleaned up the closed beaches we set aside great buoys and cool scraps and then the boys carted them off to the dump unaware to us. So we set off for a two-hour adventure with the birds in search of art-worthy plastic.

Unfortunately, plastic is not hard to come by. A few of us decided to head down to the airplane runway, stopping to see the lost Brandt’s goose – who was absolutely adorable and possibly hurt. Our main goal of plastic was thwarted momentarily when we spotted by the short-tailed albatross.

I might have mentioned him before, but let me re-emphasize. He is freaking awesome. He looks like an overgrown toddler wandering in search of his mother – really he is just much larger than the other species and is in search of a mate. Later, we learned that he enjoys scaring the Black-footed albatross from their nests, sitting on their eggs essentially playing house and then leaving once he’s bored. Oh, and we just think it’s a “he”. They have taken DNA samples but we have heard mixed results from different people. No one will truly know until it mates and either lays and egg or does not.

Upon returning from our excursion, we camped out on a concrete slab and laid out our goods. We made a yellow-fin tuna, sea turtle, blue dolphin, green marlin jumping out of the water and a pinwheel of color. It was sad to think that all of this trash is just a fragment of what is swirling around the ocean; however, reusing it for art is fun!

After lunch we headed over to Eastern Island, another island in the atoll. This island is very different from Sand Island (the main island we are staying on) in that is was only ever used as a runway so there are less invasive plants and looks similar to the original island landscape. However, upon closer inspection you can see the concrete running underneath then dirt and between the plants that have cropped up in cracks. You start to notice birds limping from the harsh landings on such a hard surface.

We stopped by the monument and took a moment of silence to remember those soldiers stationed on Eastern Island. These men thought they were facing certain death and were unaware of the help that was on its way to save them. Stopping to think about how that would feel, I cannot even imagine.

We then wondered around the island, taking care of the birds – these are not as used to humans and are therefore much more snippy than the albatross we have grown accustomed to (I got bit twice, for example). We stopped to look at the Laysan duck seeps – freshwater seeps used to attract this certain species of duck to the island – and took care to spot any birds we had not already seen.

After spending time watching the Fairy Turns flit around our heads and the Red-footed Boobies investigate our group we trekked over to a look out of the nested Short-tailed albatross. The male is currently on the nest; he is the older version of the juvenile on Sand Island and his bright golden head looks painted on – there were six other decoys in the same area and many people confused the decoys for the real thing.

We were not able to get close to the male due to the fact that he was skittish and we did not want to scare him from his fatherly duties. We took a roundabout way back to the boat, stopping at “pillbox”. These boxes are more like round domes with holes punched out in random places. An underground tube serves as the opening to the pillbox and one student decided to crawl in. Soldiers would sit in the pillboxes, guns poking out the holes, waiting for the Japanese to arrive to fight to the death.

Our hike back to the boat served as a means to hunt for glass floats, with no luck. Glass floats are held in highest reverence. Japanese fishermen used to use them for their boats, but now use plastic floats. Most of the glass floats are out at sea or safely tucked away in visitor’s homes, however, every now and then people get lucky and spot one.

We ended our day with a pre-dinner swim on North Beach, the open beach in front of the bar and dinning hall. Staying clear of the monk seal hauled out 200 feet down the beach from us, we enjoyed the crisp coolness of the clear water and laid out on the beach basking in what little sun was left of the day.

 

For awesome pictures and more info on the day, go here.

Day 8 – Searching for Spinners

January 23, 2012

 

After waking up at a seemingly too early time (you’d think I’d be getting used to this by now) we headed over for more planting fun! This time we had over 300 plants to plant – last time we had about 70 – and had help from the “professionals”. These guys are contracted to be on the island and gosh darn it are they good.

After falling into petrel holes – we did find birds and eggs and everyone is safe! – one too many times we finished the job and biked back. On the way back, we stopped at Turtle Beach to watch the sea turtles hauled out on the sand. There were also two monk seals hauled out on a nearby unused boat ramp that were completely zonked out.

Sea turtles lazily swam through the water and just as we were starting to turn back to head toward lunch we saw monk seal swimming! It’s breathtaking to see these animals in their natural environment, fat and happy! They look like they are doing well which is a major accomplishment for the species.

Later, we talked to Tracy Wurth, the monk seal biologist on the trip with us, and she told us the story behind the swimming seal. The seal – a female – was born in 1991 on French Frigate Shoals and was translocated to the main Hawaiian Islands into captive care for 8-14 months (this happened to some females in order to help them survive and preserve their reproductive potential) before she was translocated to Midway. She has done very well for herself giving birth to 12 pups – only 2-3 of them have survived, which is typical of the Northwestern islands. Recently, she has suffered a shark bite. Tracy has not been able to get a good look but she is swimming and moving around a good bit so it looks like she is doing well. Fingers crossed!

After lunch we hopped on the boat and set off in pursuit of spinner dolphins. Wind caused the waves to crash more than usual and cold water sprayed us as we went along. But the pursuit proved fruitful and we spotted a pod of over 150 spinners!

While again squealing like five-year old girls watching the spinners flip and fly over the water spinning like crazy we contemplated the idea of ecotourism. On the main islands of Hawaii, ecotours get people up close and personal to these amazing creatures. Some tours even boast swim-with programs and allow patrons in the water while the spinners swim by.

The issue stems from the sleeping pattern of the spinners. As I might have mentioned previous, these dolphins rest during the day, wake up and forage at night; this means ecotours that happen during the day disrupt this cycle, waking the dolphins and possibly causing an unsuccessful foraging trip that night.

So therein lies the dilemma. People want to see the dolphins (some people even believe they have a spiritual connection with the dolphins, like Joan Ocean, go to the link if you want a good laugh), tour operators believe that they have the right to continue tours, and scientists have an extremely hard time proving that these tours really do disrupt the dolphins.

Side note: our group had a permit to “harass” the dolphins in order to get dolphin ID photos for Pacific Island Photo Identification Network (PIPIN) which is a large photo database of all the spinners in the Hawaiian island chain. No dolphins were harmed in the making of this blog.

After returning to the shore a few of grabbed wetsuits and headed to the old cargo pier for snorkeling before dinner. Swimming under the pier little Convict fish joined us in our exploration. Silver Jacks flashed past while figuring out what we were doing in their world. I looked ahead and a large shadow loomed towards me; a 4-foot long Green Sea Turtle had swum up to say hello. He hung out for a while and then, deciding we were not anything to be interested in, dove to the depths.

I never wanted to leave the water, however, the cold had started to sneak its way through our wetsuits and we headed in. If I could, I would go everyday.

For more about today and amazing pictures and videos of the spinners, visit the class blog.

Day 7 – Lazy Sunday

January 21, 2012

 

Following a morning thwarted by rain and a football game interspersed with Navy commercials, we biked down to the airport runway and parked at the entrance to the closed beach. We were beach sweeping!

It was a different beach clean up than I had ever done before. Instead of wrappers and plastic bags everywhere, we found huge plastic floats from fishing vessels, spacers (from fishing line), weird Japanese floats that do not look like they would connect to anything and so much fishing line.

One piece (and I use piece loosely) was particularly stubborn. It was about two inches thick in diameter and I could not even tell you how long. Curled around itself and pilled under a solid foot of sand it took three of us struggling with all our might to pull it out – and this was after our strongest male had given up, the girls moved in and got the job done! We then had to cut it apart before moving it off the beach.

Bottle caps littered the shoreline and little pieces of indistinguishable plastic were commonplace. It was hard work but felt so great afterwards!

While waiting for the tractors to take the bags of garbage to their proper recycling places I sat amongst the albatross. They tend to run away at first but if you sit long enough they become curious and move over to check you out.

Taking the long route back to the barracks we spotted the endangered Short-tailed Albatross! There is one nesting pair on Eastern Island (the eastern island in the atoll) that successfully fledged a chick last year and are back again this year. This big guy (he’s huge compared to the other albatross and that’s saying something) is a newbie to the island and is struggling to mate with the other birds, none of which are his species. It will be exciting to see if he gets a mate in the next years!

Biking on we spotted two Black-footed albatross chicks! The parents are still sitting on the chicks – funnily enough because it looks like they are squishing the babies! – primarily to continue to keep them warm. The chicks are a soft white next to their parents’ rich black feathers and they have a tiny black beak. They were adorable!

We wandered our way back to the barracks, stopping to search for the Barndt’s goose – lost on its way from Alaska! – and changed into our swim suits to jump in before dinner.

On the way to the beach we spotted one of the first Laysan albatross chicks! These chicks are soft grey with dark beaks; again, they look out of place next to their bright white parents.

I ended up not swimming – it was way too cold and I chickened out – but sat and watched the waves roll in with another girl that decided to not freeze in the water. Sitting there, I noticed these small balloon-like oblong things blowing across the beach. I wondered what they were but thought nothing of it until I felt a sharp stab at my ankle. I looked down to see the jellyfish’s tendrils latched on and pulled them off. My first jellyfish sting! (Only when you’re a marine scientist are you excited about getting stung)

It was either a Portuguese Man’o’War or a blue bottle. Either way, I’m fine!

Now off to schmooze with the VIPs!