Midway Islands begin new life in the Pacific
World War II battle site offers wildlife, fishing, and a largely unseen history
June 9, 1997
Web posted at: 8:43 a.m. EDT (1243 GMT)
(CNN) -- Halfway between the United States and Japan, Midway Islands have been a turning point throughout their populated history, as a cable communications relay station, a World War II battle site, and in their current incarnation as a wildlife refuge.
Off-limits to the general population for more than 50 years, the reef-encircled atolls are luring tourists to the edge of tomorrow -- Midway lies just 140 miles east of the International Date Line -- to soak in sunsets and a cacophony of air, water and land creatures.
"There's over a million seabirds on one small, one-by-one mile island," says Birgit Winning of Oceanic Society Expeditions, which brings tourists to the islands to participate in animal research projects.
Almost a million of those seabirds are perhaps the islands' most famous residents, the Laysan albatross -- a graceful bird in flight, dubbed the "gooney bird" for its ungainly ground activities. In all, about 16 species nest on the island, and dozens more are regular
Oceanic Society Expeditions' eight-day program offers opportunities for banding gooney birds and watching the endangered Hawaiian monk seal lounging on the beach or spinner dolphins playing in the lagoon.
The program costs about $2,200, including airfare from Lihue Airport on Kauai, Hawaii, meals and lodging in restored military quarters.
Navy takes a stand
The old military quarters are almost all that remains of Midway's stint as a Naval Air Station, once boasting a population of more than 3,000 mostly military personnel and their dependents. The island's runways now bear the weight of civilian aircraft, instead of Navy planes taking off to intercept a Japanese fleet bent on capturing Midway as a stepping stone to Hawaii.
The battle that made the islands famous came in June 1942, when U.S. fighter squadrons fiercely battled the Japanese Navy for three days and turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.
Before the war, the islands served as a point in an around-the-world cable communications system, and a way station -- Gooneyville Lodge, named for the albatross -- for Pan American World Airways passengers traveling across the Pacific. Human residents "terraformed" the islands, bringing in topsoil, grass and other plants, and horses, cows and poultry.
The Navy, which had jurisdiction over Midway since 1903, began phasing out its base there with budget cutbacks in the late 1970s and early 1980s, finally deciding to shut it down completely in the early 1990s. Named a National Wildlife Refuge in 1996, the
islands are now maintained by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, while Georgia-based Midway Phoenix Corporation handles accommodations and air service.
World fishing records
Visitors can take in the two main islands in the Midway group -- Sand, the larger island, and Eastern -- or dive the offshore coral reefs that surround the atolls. Those reefs sunk
many ships in the islands' history, but now are a colorful backdrop to the equally colorful marine life that swims beneath the turquoise waters of the Pacific.
That aquatic life is a draw to sports enthusiasts who come to an area that has been virtually untouched by fishermen for half a century. Midway Sport Fishing runs a small fleet in the
region, and anglers have already broken world records. Fishermen have brought in blue marlin reaching 850 pounds -- and measuring as long as a truck.
But fishing in Midway comes with a few restrictions, says John Rogers, director of the Fish & Wildlife Service.
"For example, each fisherman can keep, kill, only one fish per day," he says, "and only for on-island consumption."
Midway Sport Fishing president John Bone echoes Rogers.
"At Midway we practice CPR, which is catch, photograph, and release," he says. "However, we do keep some yellowfin tuna, wahoo and mahi mahi, which we bring back in limited numbers. We put those on the grill in the evening [or] serve them up as shashimi."
Midway offers all-inclusive, six-day fishing packages beginning at about $4,000 per person.
Despite Midway Phoenix's visitor amenities, the Fish & Wildlife Service is determined that Midway will never be a tourist trap. By limiting tourism to 100 visitors per day, the islands on the northwest edge of the Hawaiian archipelago should remain a wildlife oasis preserved by their isolation.