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Midway not just for the birds

The atoll, a couples hangout for the feathered set, readies for human visitors as part of a newly designated marine national monument.

March 18, 2007|Pamela Frierson | Special to The Times

THE first time I traveled to Midway Atoll was 1996, a year before the U.S. Naval Air Facility closed. I was strapped into a tail-facing seat in the windowless belly of an Air Force cargo plane.

That blind descent in a backward position, after a long flight northwest from Honolulu into a part of the Pacific typically painted empty blue on maps, was my first experience of what I came to call "Midway syndrome." The symptoms -- odd but exhilarating dislocations of the time-space continuum -- seem to occur regularly on this far-flung Hawaiian landfall.

Planes arrive at Midway after dark, when its legions of seabirds have settled in for the night, so I stepped down onto the runway in front of a huge hangar lighted up like a stage set, surrounded by primordial darkness. Huge anchors flanked the building's portal. The hall inside was lined with 500-pound torpedo casings painted Easter-egg colors.

Moments later, my baggage and I were being ferried in a golf cart along a narrow road, and the dark fields on each side seethed with motion and echoed with strange sounds. Midway's largest aboriginal population was at the height of its breeding season, and the cart's headlights revealed them: a white sea of rooster-sized Laysan albatrosses, all engaged in a frenzy of socializing.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 25, 2007 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Hawaiian National Monument -- An article about the newly created Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument ("Midway Not Just for the Birds," March 18) incorrectly reported the size of the monument. It has 4,500 square miles of coral reef, not 4,500 acres.

By the time I reached my quarters in a former officers barracks, rather banally refurbished but still bearing a sense of spit and polish and 1950s time warp, I was pinching myself.

Once a military outpost, always an invaluable ark for wildlife, Midway will soon become a travel destination -- with a few caveats, of course. As the most accessible part of the recently pronounced Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, established in 2006 by President Bush, Midway is about to open the doors to a small-scale visitor program managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The national monument stretches 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. Its astounding wealth of endemic land and sea species has earned it the moniker "Hawaiian Galapagos." Most of the monument is underwater, a wilderness of some 4,500 acres of coral reef. A mere 6 square miles are islands and atolls, and most of these landfalls are crucial refuges for huge colonies of seabirds and endemic Hawaiian flora and fauna and will remain closed to the public.

Midway is the exception. In December, the Fish & Wildlife Service released a draft of a plan that, if all goes accordingly, will open the atoll to a small number of visitors in the fall. For the first year, the number of visitors will be limited to no more than 30 on the island at one time. The plan (which can be viewed at calls for wildlife, history, kayaking and snorkeling tours, as well as self-guided trails.

What visitors might do in this tiny wonderland (2 square miles of land divided among three islets and 25 square miles of radiantly blue lagoon) will depend on their reasons for coming and the time of the year they visit.

Midway's primary land residents -- 18 species of seabirds -- adhere to a seasonal schedule that allows their huge numbers (more than 2 million) to nest in a time-share fashion. Seabird enthusiasts will want to time their visits accordingly; a nature calendar will soon be available on the Midway website.

Not to be missed is the albatross breeding season. These gooney birds choose mates by dancing their way into each others' hearts. (They mate for life, so you may want to reconsider those ballroom dancing lessons.) High-stepping their size-6 webbed feet through dozens of moves, they keep up a steady patter of whinnies, moos and percussive riffs of clattering bills. (Think the Super Bowl of macarena competitions.)

But I also enjoyed witnessing the love life of the great frigate bird. Known for practicing a brutish form of kleptoparasitism -- chasing down boobies and tropicbirds as they fly home laden with fish and squid, bullying them into disgorging their catch and then swooping to catch the booty in midair -- the frigate bird becomes downright suave when it really matters.

Perched in the branches of trees and shrubs, he inflates a red pouch under his chin into a heart-shaped balloon, shimmies his wings and emits passionate gargles whenever a female glides by.

Most of the atoll's beaches are off-limits refuges for Hawaiian monk seals, but inland trails lead to viewing points where the highly endangered marine mammals can be glimpsed basking on the sand like fat odalisques.

Some of the atoll's marine life can be seen from shore: green sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, pods of Midway's resident spinner dolphins, even the occasional big ulua (a carnivorous fish in the jack family) cruising the shallows. Snorkeling and diving opportunities will depend on marine conditions, and although Midway's reefs do not present the rainbow spectacle of corals usually found in the tropics, there are creatures here that have nearly vanished from the main Hawaiian Islands.

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