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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Incredible Snorkeling at Papahanaumokuakea - Midway Atoll

We have had some great days in the water here at Midway Atoll. Snorkeling under the cargo pier off the shore, and venturing out to the emergent reef have provided many opportunities to view some magnificent marine animals. These images are of a Frogfish sighted in about 2-ft. of water along one of the concrete supports of the large Cargo Pier. The next photos show a few of the many sea slugs that we also observed at the same location. Two snorkels have resulted in 5 varieties of sea slugs, or nudibranchs sighted. Thanks to the website of Keoki and Yuko Stender, former dive master's at Midway Atoll and avid underwater photographers I was able to ID some of the more unusual marinelife that we have been encountering on our snorkels. Many of these nudibranchs are easily seen since they are most commonly found on the support posts under the pier. No matter what month we arrive at Midway there always seems to be some species of slug busy navigating the substrate. Nudibranchs generally are brightly colored and feed on sponges, hydriods, or sometimes even each other. Their bright color serves to warn other marine organisms that they are not very tasty and would be a bad meal choice. In fact many nudibranchs can incorporate the stinging cells or chemicals from the animals they eat into their own bodies, using them for their own defense. Although brightly colored, most slugs are less than a few inches long. Under the pier larger animals are also encountered. We came face to face with many green sea turtles. They seem to enjoy the pier as a resting area and can be seen sleeping underneath the many beams and concrete pieces that are scattered underneath the pier. Once they are done resting they rise to the surface and head off to other areas of the island. It is always a great treat to have these marine reptiles swim right by you. Thanks to the great conservation efforts in Hawaiian waters over the last 30 + years the Hawaiian green sea turtle population is one of the true success stories in the conservation world. There are also many different fish species here as well. Sometimes small groups of large Ulua, with individuals weighting 70-lbs or more will swim right underneath you. Large schools of goatfish and Thicklipped jacks are also abundant. Eels are often found poking out of small holes in the pilings.

Each time we can get in the water, we are full of expectations about what we might be lucky enough to encounter. Rarely does time in the ocean at Papahanaumokuakea disappoint. Check back soon for more pictures from the lagoon snorkels.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

First Day on Midway Atoll - Oceanic Society Ecotourist Visitors

Well all 15 of us arrived on Midway Atoll at about 8:45 PM on the 13th of April. After a 4.5 hour charter flight from Honolulu we arrive at night. During the "albatross nesting season" planes are only allowed to land at night, when albatross are less likely to be flying and bird strikes are less probable. On arrival we are met by two Refuge "limo" golf carts and are whisked away to what will be our home for the next 8 days amid the whines of dancing albatross and the erratic flight paths of the thousands of swooping Bonin Petrels. Once settled in the lobby of Charlie Barracks we are given a brief orientation and allowed to head off to our rooms. Many people quickly return to the lobby eager to get outside and listen to the birds and take a long look at the amazing display of starts that being so far away from any light source allows.

In the morning we head off to breakfast at the "Clipper House" Midway's central hub and mess hall, named to honor the history of the Pam Am Clippers that used to stop here in the 1930's on their way to Asia. It was a wonderful morning and for many their first true glimpse (in the daylight) of what Midway has to offer.

New arrivals to Midway must take part in a FWS orientation as their first activity on Midway. Since we are all sharing the island with many critically endangered and threatened species this orientation is vital to the visitors ability to understand the responsibilities, and role they play while on Midway in the safe stewardship of these islands. Additionally the orientation serves to make everyone aware of the significance these atolls have played in Hawaiian cultural history as well as more recent US history. During the orientation, which is presented by FWS visitor coordinator, Tracy Ammerman, all are given a map of Sand Island. This map helps everyone to navigate on their own around the island, understanding which areas are open and have maintained trails, and what areas are closed due to conservation or safety concerns. The orientation and the lectures that will be given throughout the week help everyone to understand and appreciate why certain places on the island are left as wildlife only areas, and where viewing and access points for visitors have been established. After orientation the next order of business is for everyone to choose their own traditional Midway "horse" that will be used to get around the island over the next week. These "horses" or bikes that we have to choose from were all supplied through donations made to the Friends of Midway Atoll an organization formed to specifically support Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Now that all the visitors have the needed knowledge to explore the island on their own and have a "horse" to navigate the paths full of albatross and chicks they are ready to enjoy the next 7 days on Midway. We are lucky to start off this week with amazing weather. One of the first places everyone wanted to go was the beach. We headed off to the cargo pier to see what we would find. On arrival we saw a Hawaiian monk seal on a nearby beach, about 16 green sea turtles sunning on an adjacent beach known oddly enough as "Turtle Beach" and then heard 7 Bristle-thighed Curlews as they flew overhead. As we looked down one side of the beach we noticed some washed up nets and marine debris that could pose a hazard to the wildlife we were seeing. The group decided to collect the various pieces of netting and line that were there. In about 10 minutes we had cleaned the beach of about 50-lbs of marine debris and taken our first action to participate in one of the missions of the Refuge, to provide a safe habitat for the wildlife that live there.

all images are © Wayne Sentman 2009