Friday, December 21, 2012

The Storm That Ended Tern

Just when things were getting interesting out here and we were finally settling into life on Tern, a storm comes through and ruins it all. We were inundated by a massive low pressure system from the north that produced a violent event which destroyed half our field camp, crippled our life support systems, and killed hundreds of birds. Although it matched the descriptions of a tornado, given the pattern of destruction and the way the debris was distributed, we were most likely struck by a sudden localized downdraft of heavy air known in the meteorological world as a microburst. Such downdrafts can produce winds equal in strength to a tornado, possibly over 100 mph in our case, but lack the vortex. Our field season is effectively over, and the future of this remote field camp is uncertain, but we’re lucky no one got hurt. The following is my account of the event.

Sunday December 9th, 4:30 AM:

I awoke as I always do around 4:30 in the morning to start the day. It was muggy and warm when I went to bed so I left my windows open to get some breeze. It had apparently rained throughout the night, slightly flooding my room. I normally get up this early to use the unlimited download time we’re given for the internet (from midnight to 6am), but it had been down the night before, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bother getting out of bed to test it. But the lightning outside was pretty cool, and a cup of coffee sounded really good, so I got up anyway. The lightning was indeed amazing; it was like storms I had seen visiting my brother in Alabama, the sky lit up like a dying light bulb blinking every few seconds. It kept going, never really producing any bolts, it just lit the clouds a brilliant purple hue. Although it was raining steadily, the direction the rain was falling kept the water off the porch, so I sat outside with my coffee in the warm morning air and photographed the lightning show. The wind was coming from the south, so I stayed relatively dry sitting in the lee of the building.

5:45 AM:

After watching the weather for a while, trying to catch the occasional lightning bolt, the wind abruptly swung from the south to the north, driving the rain straight onto the porch. At first it was tolerable, but then the rain grew heavier, getting me and my camera gear wet. I immediately took my tripod down and went back inside, and as I shut the front door to keep the rain out I noticed that the temperature had rapidly dropped at least ten degrees, like I was standing in front of an open freezer door. It got so cold I almost felt I could see my breath. I didn’t think much of it. I figured the cold front had just passed over us, explaining the shift in the wind and the sudden increase in rain.  Although this had never happened before, so I thought it noteworthy. In the meantime the lighting intensified, it was now producing proper bolts and very loud thunder, the storm was right on top of us. With nothing else to do I sat down at my computer in the radio room and gave the internet a shot. Amazingly it worked enough for me to send an email out to Casey, bragging about how cool the lightning was and how monstrous the surf sounded.

Sometime around 6:00 AM:

I had just sent the email out, and was sitting at my computer thinking what I was going to write about the storm (I usually write up or edit a journal entry in the morning), when out of the blue the VHF radio on a shelf behind me started producing static, like the sound an analog TV makes when it’s not receiving a signal. I had never heard it do this before, I didn’t even know the radio was on, so it startled me. With this and the extremely cold air minutes earlier, I began to worry that something was off. Then the sky just opened up and dumped the heaviest rain I’ve ever heard, as if the building was sitting beneath a massive waterfall. The radio kept chattering and the rest happened so fast it’s hard to describe. Like a shockwave the pressure in room grew so strong my ears started popping just before hearing a faint rumbling sound that swiftly grew louder, and then getting blasted in the face with a cold wind. Books from the shelf behind me and pieces of debris started flying about the room, and I instinctively dove under the computer desk and covered my face. At this point the rumbling was all around me. It sounded like metal and wood were being run through a blender, lots of banging, cracking and screeching. It was the most violent sound I have ever heard. I had visions of the movie Twister playing in my head, dairy cows levitating and all, but I had no idea was going on and I thought for sure the whole building was falling down. I wondered if the Mayans had been right all along, the world was coming to an end. I figured I was going to be buried in a pile of rubble when it was all over. The chaos lasted for about 5 seconds and then stopped. The rain, the wind, everything was calm again. I stayed under the desk, not knowing what was going on. Then I heard Morgan say from the hall, “where’s Mike?”, and at this point I got my first glimpse of the extent of the damage. Initially I was shocked to see one of the interior walls and the door to the radio room had been knocked down, and the place was littered with soggy books and sheets of data.

Then I saw the common room. It was just after six now, still too early for the sun, and the whole building was dark. The lightning flashed and revealed all the walls were gone. It was such an eerie sight. Every time the lighting went off, where the entertainment center stood, the bookshelves, the chalkboard with our daily schedule, it was all just an open view of a tumultuous sea and a nasty sky. The wind was blowing salt spray and rain right through our dining area, chairs were strewn about the room, and the kitchen was covered with knives, pots and pans – it was a mess. The wind had been so strong it moved stoves in the kitchen, and blew a heavy freezer full of old video tapes clear through a wall and out the building. We had just rearranged the movie area, and set up the Christmas tree for the holidays, and it was now a massive pile of junk. Broken glass, bad novels, random debris had been blown out with the east walls, landing in a fan outside on top of albatrosses incubating eggs. The entire scene was a disaster.

Then I saw the hallway. Four rooms, including mine, had been completely blown out. It was a jungle of shattered drywall and mangled aluminum framing that had been ripped from their foundations. Fortunately I wasn’t in my room, and all other occupied rooms only received minor damage. The west end of the hallway was so mangled the last three rooms were inaccessible. One unused bed was buried under three different walls. If anyone had been sleeping there they would have been crushed. We really lucked out.

The damage was extensive. The boathouse looked like a bomb had gone off, the tractor shed had gaping holes in its concrete walls, there were many leaks in the plumbing, the solar panels were torn from the braces, radio antennas were stripped off the roof, six bedrooms, one office, two bathrooms, the laundry room, and all of the common room had their exterior walls blown out, and a few other structures including fuel storage units and a couple fiberglass boat hulls were scattered around the west portion of the island. We took a big hit, and it was all a major shock to witness.

Even more disturbing was searching for injured and buried birds. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for rescue workers on scene at the World Trade Centers or in Japan after the tsunami. It was very difficult seeing albatrosses, birds that I have been admiring for years, with broken wings and bloody necks stuck beneath sheets of wall panels. Some were killed instantly by projectiles, others were flattened on their nests, and many were simply limping around with mangled wings. Since the debris from our buildings had inflected the most damage to the wildlife, it was our responsibility to euthanize the suffering birds. Something I hope to never have to do again. The death count is as follows: 62 Brown Noddies, 97 Black Noddies, 10 White Terns, 17 Red-footed Boobies, 6 Great Frigatebirds, 1 Pacific Plover, 24 Laysan Albatross, and 22 Black-footed Albatross, for a total of 239 birds of which 79 were banded.

It’s amazing how selective these storms can be. You always hear stories about how tornados will completely disintegrate one home, and leave another only feet away untouched. The microburst we experienced only affected the west end of the island where all of our facilities stand, or at least once stood. The east end of the island showed no signs of damage. It appeared every leaf and branch hadn’t even been rustled. The wind apparently stopped at the warehouse to the east, and was most intense near the boathouse to the west. As much as I can gather from Wikipedia, a microburst forms by the rapid evaporation of highly saturated air in a thunder head. As the mass of air evaporates, it cools. The sudden cooling forces the air mass to descend from the cloud, accelerating as it falls through the wet air below. When the air mass eventually collides with the ground it can reach speeds of 150 mph, leveling anything that stands in its way. At least that’s what I think happens. Either way the point is it gets very windy very fast, and causes intense localized destruction.

The storm carried on for three days. It was difficult to sleep the first night after the disaster. No longer did we trust the integrity of the building. We were convinced that the next big gust could blow the whole place down. The rooms in the north wing where we moved all of our valuables and beds were mostly intact, although the roofing had been compromised and new leaks had sprung open.  We were able to recover most of the archived data, although some had been saturated, and luckily all of our expensive computers and camera gear survived. My computer was covered in dirt and had a desk lamp fall on the keyboard, but it still works. Take that MAC. We boarded up the kitchen and the exposed hallway, and somehow managed to recovery the internet, although its functions are limited. The solar panels were damaged, but are intact enough to still charge the battery bank. Chad fixed the broken pipes in the plumbing and shunted all water to the north hall. We limped along for 10 days. In the meantime we piled all the wooden debris on the runway for a bonfire, and did what we could to secure all other lost items that might otherwise blow around and cause more injury to the birds.

It’s a shame the season had to end this way. We’ve spent the last few months mostly doing maintenance on the place, and setting up plots in preparation for the albatross breeding season. I had just put most of the nest markers out in the albatross plots, and were starting to see the Bonin Petrels build nest cups in the artificial burrow boxes. I was really looking forward to following these birds for the next three months, banding them, watching how the mates take turns incubating the eggs, seeing the first chicks hatch, and now we have to abandon it all.. Now we’ve just been cleaning up 30 years of clutter, waiting for the Kahana to pick us up.

Friday, December 7, 2012

More on Whales

The first southbound Gray Whales have been spotted along the California coast, destined for Mexico where they spend the winter months breeding in shallow protected lagoons along Baja. Robustly 23,000 strong, almost all pass by my college town of Monterey twice a year on an epic 12,000 mile journey. Like the amber shades of autumn, the appearance of Gray Whales off the west coast of North America signals a change in the seasons, as reliable a natural rhythm as the Earth’s rotation around the sun. Here in the southern latitudes of the North Pacific a different species of whale, the humpback, marks the arrival of winter. Hawaiian locals and the illusive observant tourist alike are more than familiar with the acrobatic areal displays and haunting melodic songs of Humpback Whales in their waters. From December through March one is certain, if enough effort is given, to see the stunning foamy explosions of humpbacks flinging 40 tons of blubber from the surface, or to spot the tall bushy geyser of a whale’s exhalation on the horizon. Based on rather simple mark-recapture models, it is estimated roughly 20,000 humpback whales occur in the North Pacific Ocean, of which 8,500 to 10,000 breed throughout the main Hawaiian archipelago. There are of course other breeding populations throughout the tropical Pacific, all of which migrate between different feeding areas. For example the humpbacks I made a living off of watching during the summer in California travel to mainland Mexico and Central America, whales off of Siberia travel to southern Japan and the Philippines, and curiously enough based on recent DNA and photographic evidence there is a possible unknown breeding ground somewhere in the middle of the Pacific for whales that feed primarily around the Aleutians in Alaska. This got me thinking…French Frigate Shoals is about as middle of the Pacific as one can get…so I started digging.

Volunteer crews have spotted humpbacks from Tern Island in the past, but these observations were always anecdotal and typically of conspicuous whales breaching near the island. Thus far no dedicated effort has been given to visually sighting and documenting whales that possibly winter in French Frigate Shoals. In the spring of 2007, the 68 meter NOAA vessel RV Oscar Elton Sette departed Honolulu bound for the atolls and islands of the northwestern Hawaiian archipelago.  Carrying a crew of observers equipped with ‘big eye’ binoculars, they made a series of transects throughout the chain looking for signs of whale activity, however given the delayed timing of their departure, little activity was observed. In fact no whales what so ever were seen around French Frigate Shoals, with only a few scatted sightings around reefs further up the chain. Following this study in 2008, a team of researchers from the University of Hawaii deployed passive acoustic data loggers at seven locations along the chain, of which two devices were deployed at French Frigate Shoals. For reasons yet unknown, male humpbacks produce distinct songs unique to their source population that can travel many miles through the water column. The acoustic data were more encouraging than the transects that previous year, showing the rate of humpback song in French Frigate Shoals statistically matched that of a known breeding area near Oahu. Interestingly data yet to be published may reveal that humpbacks singing in French Frigate Shoals do in fact produce a slightly different song than whales in the main Hawaiian Islands, further adding evidence to the theory that the NW Hawaiian Islands are the missing breeding grounds of whales from the Aleutians. Again, this is just a theory.

Combing the ocean for signs of whales is almost an involuntary reflex for me now, and given the opportunity to contribute a bit of knowledge to this under sampled region, I’ve initiated of a dedicated whale watch. Elevation and good weather are crucial for observing whales. The warehouse roof offers a 360 degree view out to 12 kilometers, enough to search a decent portion of the atoll granted the weather cooperates.  Over the next three months I plan to scan the waters around Tern Island for at least one hour each day, in an effort to shed some light onto the number of whales, if any, which occur in this small segment of the world, along with the types of behaviors they may exhibit. Looking at the acoustic data and the opportunistic sightings from previous volunteers, whales begin to arrive around Tern in early December, peak in February, and drop off again in late March. I’ve already had my first confirmed humpback sighting on November 28th, a lone individual that surfaced three times and disappeared. Based on what I’ve seen in Australia, this was likely an early singing male, which often appear cryptic at the surface and tend to stay down for over 20 minutes while singing – difficult to relocate once they dive. I’m hoping to get some significant counts in the coming weeks, possibly enough data for a poster to present at the Marine Mammal Conference in New Zealand in November of next year; giving me a particle excuse to travel down under again. Always have to think of the end game right?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reproductive Plots

Black-footed Albatross (BFAL) and Laysan Albatross (LAAL) began laying their eggs weeks ago, and I’ve since been conducting a bi-weekly check of all nesting birds within four defined plots around the island. The aim of this annual study is two-fold, first to quantify the average timing of egg laying, incubation, hatching and fledging, and second to track the long term breeding success of known pairs within the plots. In summary, as of last check there were 167 BFAL and 100 LAAL nests, corresponding to the same numbers of breeding pairs, totaling 534 individual breeding birds. BFAL numbers have peaked and are expected to platue in the following weeks, with LAAL numbers reaching their max by mid December. With the assistance of others, I systematically walk around each plot and look for nests containing an egg. If an egg is present that nest receives a numbered orange marker, and the field readable alpha-numeric auxiliary bands of both parents are read and noted. If either of the parents are missing their band, either because it fell off or it was never put on, we band them. This involves one person grabbing the bill and scooping the bird up into a cradle position, while another uses banding pliers and spreaders to attach a long-term metal band on the left leg and a plastic alpha numeric on the right. For the most part the birds remain relatively calm during this process, although they often kick a bit. I’ve already received battle scars to my arms and legs from the sharp nails of their webbed feet during these kicking bouts. Some of them have perfected their aim and are just the right size to kick directly in the family jewels; I suspect these birds have been conspiring with Stan. Field work in the bird world, however, hasn’t officially begun until you’ve been shit on, which happened to me yesterday.

The female, once the egg has been laid, will leave the nest and hand over the first incubation shift to the male, so it can take weeks to finally read the bands of both parents. Sometimes there are anomalies, for instance in plot two there is a nest with both a LAAL and BFAL parent incubating an egg. Hybrids between these two species have been observed, but are uncommon. We have a local suspected hybrid named Prius that returns to the same spot on the island every year. Prius resembles a BFAL but awkwardly dances and calls like a LAAL, and understandably has thus far been unsuccessful at attracting a mate. I also found a nest in plot four (the first nest in the plots with an egg in fact) with two eggs, possibly indicating much to the disapproval of the Republican base the presence of two female parents, a behavior well documented in bird societies. It is likely that one of these eggs will be kicked out of the nest, or that both eggs are non-fertile and will fail, unless of course either of the females had been raped by the many gangs of bachelor males that cruise throughout the colony looking for trouble.

Approximately 60 days past laying, if all eggs miraculously survive the incubation phase, we’ll have at least 267 fluffy chicks wobbling about the plots, slurping of partially digested squid and toothbrushes collected by their parents from the reservoir of human waste that is the Pacific. Looking at the numbers the bulk of chicks will be hatching around my birthday on January 13th. Chicks, once hatched, take even longer to develop, especially if their parents are loading them with bits of plastic bags, cigarette lighters, and bottle caps.  Many will still retain their downy plumage when we depart the island in March, and most will not fledge until well into June and July, when hopefully I’ll be back surfing along the California Coast, with dog and beer waiting for me in the truck. It is highly probable that a fraction of the albatross I’ll surely observe soaring over swells next summer in Monterey will be birds that have hatched right here on Tern. I still find that to be an incredible thought.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Goose Sighting

I’ve agreed to run a 5k on Christmas, involving many laps on the runway, and during my inaugural training run yesterday evening I noticed an odd looking bird flying in an unusual pattern high over the island. Frigate birds have a distinct soaring flight, with very distinct frigate bird shaped wings. This bird however had a chunky body, long neck, and a labored flight pattern, different from all other species that breed on the island. Immediately I made the connection, “that’s a damn goose”. Chad the current refuge manager on the island has worked with waterfowl in the past, and given the nearest mainland is roughly 5,000 miles away, I thought he’d be interested in the sighting. So I sprinted to the barracks and yelled…”Goose over the island!” grabbed my bins and ran back outside to get a better look; it was backlit before so I couldn’t make out any identifying field marks. Of course when I returned outside the bird had already disappeared. Typical. Also typical was the air of doubt in the responses from the others about my goose sighting. It’s tough when you’re the only one who spots something out of the ordinary.

Fortunately I got a report early this morning that the goose did in fact exist and was standing near meter marker 100 on the east end of the runway. So once again I grabbed the bins and my camera this time and hopped on the bike. Sure enough there it was being harassed by a group of noddies that had also realized a foreigner was invading their island home. It had the overall appearance of a Canada Goose, but was much smaller in size; compared to the albatross this thing was tiny. After consulting the internet, which is finally working again,  it turns out the mystery bird was a Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii), once thought to be a subspecies to the Canada Goose but was split into its own species status in 2004. There are currently five recognized subspecies of Cackling Goose now, all of which breed in the tundra around Canada and Alaska, wintering throughout most of western Canada, the US, and northern Mexico. They are sometimes found in eastern Siberia, China, and Japan; Japan being the possible final destination for this lost bird.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012


After finishing lifting weights in the gym, something I have never recreationally done before in my life but hey, when in Rome, Larry and I decided to jump off the dauphin. Not exactly sure what the proper definition of a dauphin is (notice the spelling lacks an L), but ours is a tall metal structure with a catwalk leading out to it that I believe was once used to tie up large ships. Naturally the dauphin is on the edge of a dredged channel, and I was thinking about diving in head first but chickened out. Striking the water in a pencil dive fashion I stuck my face in to look around, and as the bubbles cleared I noticed a large blob near the bottom against the seawall. Unable to focus without I mask, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

“Hey Larry, looks like there’s some kind of large fish down here”


I stuck my head in for another look and realized the blob was moving towards the surface, “at least I think it’s a fish, definitely large though”.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah…” the inflection in my voice changed from calm and observant, to slightly cautious, to… “Shit it’s swimming towards me!”

Finally the blob surfaced just a foot away from me. What emerged was a round dome with whiskers and cold black eyes; it was a young monk seal, not a shark. My heart was in my stomach…or is it my stomach was in my mouth? I can never get that expression right. We are required to keep our distance from any monk seals we encounter, and I think this one knew the game, for it was lingering around our exit, bobbing at the surface right in front of the ladder. Occasionally it would swim off slightly, but as soon as we got close to the ladder it would pop up and block access again. Maybe there was a shark down there after all and it was baiting us. Maybe this was a diabolical seal...perhaps named Stan. Maybe some former researcher or volunteer had harassed Stan as a pup, and now it’s seeking its revenge. Maybe its revenge was to have us torn to bits by the tiger shark lurking beneath our feet. Whatever its motivation the seal wouldn’t move…so eventually we just had to get bold, break protocol, and take charge of the ladder. It watched us clamber up the rusty metal rungs, and once we were back on the island it lost interest and disappeared, as if its plans for revenge had been foiled. I’m convinced Stan was out to get us…

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tour of the Atoll

Fierce winds and persistent rain squalls have been the predominate weather pattern for the past week, but a break in the storms allowed us to explore the outer islands of French Frigate Shoals. With a mirror sea and sunshine we ditched the day’s activities to take advantage of the conditions, loading both the grey and red whalers with enough gas and supplies for a roundtrip tour of the atoll. Roughly six miles at a heading 140 we reached East Island, a narrow sand spit half the size of Tern. We visit East typically once a week to remove invasive vegetation and count any seabirds that happen to be standing around, so we didn’t land here this time. East is where roughly 80 percent of all Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles nest, and where around 1,000 breeding pairs of albatross will soon nest. On clear days a tall telephone pole fixed with surveillance cameras used to broadcast streaming video of turtle activity is visible on the horizon.

Next on our stop was a pair of small sand islands, Gin and Little Gin, another 4.5 miles from East Island on the same bearing. The Gins are beautiful, two white sand mounds separated by a deep blue channel. Both are narrow and less than 100 meters in length. They periodically get washed over by large waves, so no permanent vegetation has taken root. The only items that breakout the bleak white sand are bits of trash and fishing gear from Asia, lounging monk seals, and loitering albatross. Aside from Disappearing Island on the southern fringe of the reef, the Gins are the southernmost islands of the atoll that remain constant above mean high tide. We counted about 100 albatross and a few Brown Noddies on both Gins, and collected a boogie board that had washed up from some distant civilization.  
The trip to the Gins had taken up most of our morning, so we decided to explore the pinnacles of reef that make French Frigate Shoals so notoriously dangerous, to find a good spot to snorkel (or as Larry would like to rename it ‘nature swimming’ since he feels it has a better ring to it than snorkeling) and have lunch. Leaning over the bow, we assisted Chad in navigating the deeper channels by pointing out shallow reef. The water was so unbelievably clear we could see green coral heads 50 feet down, though the brown ones 3 feet down were the ones to watch out for. With East Island back in sight as we worked north again, and the illusive La Perouse Pinnacle to the northwest, we came upon two round patches of shallow reef with a snaking channel between them. In lee of the atoll this would be a nice calm spot for a swim, so we pitched our anchors overboard, dawned our masks and jumped in. It was a gorgeous reef, the healthiest we’ve seen yet. Boundless diversity of both reef and fish, full of all the brilliant colors and shades of the rainbow. It was mind blowing to ponder we were the only four people in the water within a 500 mile radius, in the middle of the Pacific, within a crescent shaped rim of reef that once was a mighty island; nature swimming a spot that previously had never been seen by another set of human eyes... as far as we know. I made taquitos for lunch, and named this spot in their honor.

Flying over blobs of dark coral heads, watching our boat’s shadow glide over a sandy seabed in emerald blue water, we made our way from Taquito Reef to Round Island. Round has a radius of roughly 10 meters, so we didn’t bother landing on it. There were a few noddies and boobies hanging around along with a very small monk seal weaner, but other than that not much was happening here. Round once had a companion island called Mullet, which is currently eroded away and under water. Soon to be a growing trend for other islands of French Frigate Shoals as the ocean continues to rise over their banks. It’s predicted that in 100 years or less almost all the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Atolls, Lisianski and Laysan Islands, and French Frigate Shoals) will be under water; forcing the seabirds, turtles, and seals to find some other trash laden islands to breed. 

Last on our stop was Trig Island, just a few miles east of Tern. Trig is protected by a very shallow and dense reef, so finding a passage to access the beach was a bit tricky. There is a well known narrow channel that can be difficult to find in the glare and dangerous to pass through in a swell, but we had sunny skies and calm seas, so we gave it a shot. A chunk of coral shaped like an anchor, called Anchor Rock, stands at the entrance of the channel and notes where to make the turn into the reef. After some skillful zigzagging through a coral mine field with finally anchored off the east side of Trig, and waded through placid water onto the beach. This was by far the most beautiful blue lagoon I have seen yet in French Frigate, with huge steep pinnacles of coral scattered throughout. After completing our census of birds on the island (and one turtle with a shark bite to its tail) we jumped in the water for our final snorkel of the day. The diversity was low here, the clarity not what we expected; and given the shark bitten turtle on the beach we didn’t stay in long.

Exiting the reef proved to be even more challenging than entering. With the late afternoon glare obstructing our view through the water, it was slow going avoiding the shallow spots. We decided, perhaps recklessly, to be adventurous and chart our own path through the barrier reef. Just when we thought we were in the clear and out of the hazards I noticed a shallow mound of coral just off the bow, and before I could point it out we were on top of it. Seconds went by with no reaction… “hmm must have been deep enou”….BANG!. We violently jolted forward as the keel of the motor slammed into the immovable reef. We pulled the motor up to inspect the damage, nothing major. So we continued on our way back to Tern, finishing up an amazing tour of French Frigate Shoals with only a few minor scratches to the propeller.  

That was Tuesday, it’s now Thanksgiving. I awoke at 4:30 am to the blinding flash of lightning over the shoals out my bedroom window. Still half awake and groggy, I fumbled in the dark to gather my camera gear. Numerous bolts of energy, one after the other, weaved through the clouds; illuminating the sky with a brilliant purple haze. The thunder claps were so violent and strong they made my bones shake. I couldn’t help but exclaim out loud... “Jesus Christ!” It seems the albatross were thinking the same, as they would call out in chorus after every rumble. The explosion of sound hit my ears with such force I was certain the island had been hit. It was one of the most exciting lightning storms over the ocean I have ever seen. The fireworks blazed on all morning until the sun came up a 7:30. Winds shifted as the storm blew over, followed by a cold rain that whipped through the front door, soaking the entry way and blowing over items on the shelves. So much for a break in the weather, winter has arrived to Tern.
I’m in charge of the turkey today. I covered it with two sticks of butter, jalapenos, garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper, and it’s now simmering away in the oven. We have on the menu all the classic side dishes: stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, biscuits, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin and peach pie, and some home stilled moonshine I’m not supposed to tell you about. The sun’s back out and the wind light again, so we plan to have Thanksgiving dinner under white trash Christmas lights on the porch.

La Perouse Pinnacle

No longer a mystery on the horizon, I finally made it out to La Perouse, a steep pinnacle of basalt standing alone like a passing ship six miles south of Tern. La Perouse Pinnacle is the tallest monolith in the atoll, all that remains of a 13 million year old shield volcano battered and torn away by relentless trade winds and powerful swells. In fact the pinnacle was once the main lava tube that supplied the building material to this extinct island. Like a conveyor belt on a mind numbingly large scale, 70 million years of WNW movement of the Pacific Plate over a hot spot in the Earth’s mantle has produced a chain of volcanoes stretching 5,000 miles long. The Big Island of Hawai’i now sits over this hotspot at the southernmost end of the chain, spewing lava from active volcanoes - creating new land as it cools. Eventually the Big Island will drift away from this active region, cutting off the supply of magma to the volcanoes and stunting any further grow of the island. It will then take on the form of O’ahu and Kaua’i, extinct cinder cones slowly eroding away as the islands move WNW. Over millions of years as erosion accelerates the island will shrink in diameter. As the area of exposed island decreases, coral that once fringed its shores will create a rim of reef around a shallow lagoon, known as an atoll, formed by millions of tiny coral polyps that build calcium carbonate structures to keep them close to the sunlit surface waters; as has happened with French Frigate Shoals and the 30 million year old Kure Atoll. So long as the coral growth matches or exceeds the islands rate of submergence, the atoll will remain at the surface. Conditions change as the conveyor belt drives forward; drifting the atoll into latitudes too cold to support coral growth. Without the coral the atoll dies, and the entire structure will finally sink below the waves. The story, however, doesn’t end there as this submerged island will become part of the Emperor Seamounts; important features in the seafloor that extent all the way to the Aleutians, known to support a diversity of marine life.

French Frigate Shoals is in one of these transitional stages, where a small fragment of the old island (La Perouse) stubbornly holds onto existence as the atoll marches north to fulfill its destiny. This unique structure in the middle of the Pacific provides a critical habitat for seabirds that prefer to nest on high relief substrate. Brown Boobies, Blue-grey Noddies, and possibly White-tailed Tropicbirds for instance all   prefer the jagged weathered rocks as a perch upon which to lay an egg. These three species are only occasionally seen investigating Tern, but without steep cliffs suitable for nesting they are merely visitors to our island home. Probably for the best, this island is crowded enough as it is.

We snorkeled the pinnacle on our visit, one of the best spots thus far, possibly rivaling the aptly named Taquito Reef. The water is deep around La Perouse and lacking in sand suitable to anchor in. To avoid damaging the reef, we carefully maneuvered the anchor chain over a patch of sand, and I swam down to set it clear of the delicate coral heads. The clarity of the water made the bottom appear deceptively closer than it was. It looked roughly 35 ft, but in reality it was likely about 50 ft. My first attempt to make the dive failed, I ran out of air 10 ft short of the bottom; this doesn’t happen often for me, another indicator of the depth. Back at the surface I was able to replenish enough oxygen in my system to make the second dive. Reaching the bottom I managed to dig the anchor barbs into the sand without entangling myself in the chain. Looking up at the surface from the deep watery world below is one of my favorite sights; I like to imagine what it would be like to live in such an environment. The depth of the reef made the snorkeling rather exhausting, especially since we were still recovering from Thanksgiving dinner, but the multitude of caves to swim through and huge satellite dish-sized shelf coral made the effort worthwhile. The shark factor felt high here, and I was constantly watching over my shoulder for any strange silhouettes. It’s rumored there exists a long tunnel that cuts through the width of the pinnacle which people have swam through, full of sharks of varying shapes and sizing. Our grapes were not feeling large enough to attempt such a swim on this day.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Big Eggs

Testing the strength of my relationship and putting my friends and family on hold for six months, I came to this isolated runway far from home to see one thing…albatross. The boobies, frigatebirds, and even shearwaters are interesting to say the least, but the albatross demand respect and admiration. Three thousand strong and increasing in attendance each day, two of the three North Pacific species now dominate the landscape. Their presence on the island provides validation for my decision to invest half a year of my life to Tern. Long seven foot wingspans seize the wind like the sheets of a schooner, harnessing this resource for flight with only the slightest investment of energy. Walking down the runway I can hear the buzz of primary feathers vibrating past my ears as a Laysan tacks in a figure eight (known as dynamic soaring), dipping so low only centimeters remain between the hard packed ground and its wingtips. Just as a plane lowers its flaps to spill air from the wings, the bird pivots its broad wings vertical to the ground, stopping all forward motion and dropping it from the sky; possibly the first time this bird has touched land in over a year. Research suggests that albatross remain loyal both to their partners and their natal islands. Most pairs will return to the same patch of ground every other year to build a rudimentary nest suitable for an egg. Black-footed Albatross (BFAL) are the first to lay, followed by the Laysans a few weeks later. As of yesterday, I counted eleven BFAL eggs in four rectangular plots throughout the island; part of a weekly check to sample the breeding success of these birds from egg laying to chick fledging. These eggs will take nearly two months of incubation effort from the parents before chicks begin to hatch just around the time of my birthday in mid January. Now the waiting game begins.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Brought in with the Storm

A heavy storm has lain in over Tern Island and its neighbor Laysan to the north, both literally and figuratively. An unfortunate chain of events, one after another, has tested our resolve out here. As if the tsunami warning wasn’t enough excitement, it appears certain now that the entire winter crew on Laysan, and one of our own Ternites, will be forced to cut their season short and head back to Honolulu. I won’t disclose the details here, but one member of the Laysan team is in need of medical assistance not available on island, forcing an emergency evacuation of the entire crew. Sadly, given the isolated nature of Tern Island, the powers that be in the Fish and Wildlife Service office have deemed one of our crew members at risk of infection from a minor on island operation of an inflamed abscess. Despite the fact that it’s healing up nicely, the people in charge don’t want to risk it, and have decided without negotiation that this person most come off the island when the Kahana passes by in route to Honolulu from Laysan on Tuesday. Very frustrating for all of us to see one of our own leave so soon for such an absurd reason – but I won’t vent my frustrations here. There is a chance we will be receiving at most two volunteers from the Laysan team, but we won’t know until Monday who will be chosen and if any of them even want to stay with us. Our main concern is the food supply, but we should be able to accommodate them. It’s damned unfortunate, but there’s nothing we can do.

On a positive note, the literal storm seems to have passed. Strong winds and heavy rain carried on throughout the night and into the early morning, creating whiteout conditions and turning the runway into a rectangular lake. We all suspected the next big wind would bring in the much anticipated Laysan Albatross, and sure enough once skies cleared, the sun illuminated the white heads and dark brows of at least six of them. Their white bodies and pink bills stand out amongst the increasingly abundant all dark Black-footed Albatross. Soon these birds will pair up with their lifelong mates, renew their bonds through a ritualistic song and dance, mate, lay a massive egg, and rear a fluffy chick to fledging; flying thousands of miles into the North Pacific to collect squid, fish,  and roe, during the incubation and chick rearing periods. A remarkable life history of both parents alternating flying between feeding grounds in the cold offshore waters of Alaska and Russia and breeding islands in the warm sub-tropical seas here in the NW Hawaiian Islands; all in a week’s time, and repeating this for six months or more. Amazing. It is highly likely that many of the Black-footed Albatross seen from California have been banded by volunteers here on Tern, and may regularly fly between California and here to find food for their chicks. Suddenly home doesn’t seem all that far away.  

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Hatchling

We left behind October and its Halloween cake with the sunrise this morning. We are now entering the dynamic month of November, where the albatross will soon take over the island as the dominant breeding force. Lying in my hammock yesterday evening I watched Albatross stream in like a formation of fighter jets onto an aircraft carrier. First passing over the island to assess the landing conditions, then circling into a headwind to glide down the runway. Unfortunately their landing gear always seems to malfunction and I’ve seen a few flip tail over nose when the wind is too light; they’re much more adept at landing on the sea. Still no Laysan Albatross, bet we’re expecting them in at any moment. The weather has been hot and still, perhaps they’re waiting for a strong trade wind to bring them in.

Relatives of the albatross, the Wedge-tailed Shearwaters (or wedgies for short), are getting ready to fledge their chicks. They are burrow nesters, so to monitor their breeding Olivia has been going around with a burrow cam (an LED illuminated camera at the terminal end of a long tube; the image broadcasted wirelessly to a headset) to check the feathering status of the chicks. Many chicks have reached ‘mostly feathered’ to ‘fully feathered stage’, where they have almost completely lost their insulating down and have developed a similar plumage to adults. Eventually the parents cue in on when their chick is ready to fledge, and stop attending the burrow. This will prompt the chick, when it gets hungry enough, to leave the burrow (fledge) and experience for the first time what one can only imagine would be the thrill of flight and the hardships of making a living at sea.

I assisted Olivia with a couple wedgie burrow plots. It’s a repetitive task. Turn camera on, put camera in burrow, find the chick, report its status.

“Burrow 21 fully feathered chick. Burrow 23 fully feathered chick. Burrow 24…hmmm…this one’s difficult to see. Oh it’s a feisty one…possibly mostly…nope fully feathered chick”.

Repeat for an hour in the hot sun.
The monotony was broken, however, by an interesting find.

Whoa check it out, it’s a turtle hatchling!”
“Yeah and it’s still alive…well barely”.

Most of the lost hatchlings we find around the island have already dried out in the sun, turtle chips. This one however had discovered the relative shelter of a shady burrow, keeping it cool enough to stay alive and out of the deadly heat. We took the hatchling, about the diameter of a soda can, and carried it to the beach. Nearly stepping on a slumbering Hawaiian Monk Seal (I didn’t notice the tracks in the sand until passing it) I made my way, turtle in hand, to the water. Like bacon to a dog’s nose, the hatchling perhaps hearing the light surf or smelling the salty air awoke from its heat induced coma and began slowing flapping its flippers. Its sand encrusted eyes cracked open, as if its biological drive to seek out the sea kicked back into gear. It grew livelier as I set it on the cool wet sand, waving its flippers slightly faster and attempting to move down slope of the beach. Suddenly my doubts on its odds of survival were shaken, and once the water lapped over its body, it was clear this hatchling stood a good chance of recovery. Within seconds of being dragged down the beach by a surge of water, the hatchling was fully alert. Orienting itself perpendicular to the direction of the waves, it began vigorously paddling out to sea; lifting its tiny fingernail-sized head out of water after every stroke.  It was like watching someone who had just been slammed by a semi get up and start running a marathon. Amazingly resilient creatures. Vulnerable and weak, the struggle to find the sea is only one in a series of hurtles it now faces in the open ocean. In fact not a minute after it hit the water, a frigatebird swooped in and attempted to pluck the hatchling from the surface. A failed attempt by the bird, this life or death gamble will be a common occurrence for this hatchling until it reaches adulthood. If it does manage to escape the hungry beaks of predatory birds, the sharp teeth of oceanic sharks, and the deadly grip of drifting marine debris, this hatchling could reach a girth of 300 pounds, and may one day return to French Frigate Shoals to replay the drama all over again.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


It’s eight-o-clock in the evening. Halfway through one of my favorite movies “Master and Commander”, right when the naturalist/ship doctor is about to remove a bullet from his own gut no loss – after being shot by one of the master’s of arm trying to kill an albatross off the coast of Ecuador, Chad gets a page. I didn’t know that technology was possible out here or even existed anymore, but I figured it would be slightly expensive to use and therefore rather important. He left for a few minutes and returned to inform us that an earthquake had just been reported off of Queen Charlotte Island in British Columbia; a potential destructive wave generating 7.7 magnitude event triggering a tsunami warning for the Hawaiian Islands.
“Oh”, we all thought, “so turn the movie off?”
“Yeah... go ahead and turn the movie off.”

The first waves were predicted to strike at 2230 hours, giving us ample time to gather treasured personal items, buckets of peanut butter and Poptarts, 24 gallons of drinking water, survival suits (aka Gumby suits), and a pillow for the long night ahead. All of this gear was hoisted onto the tallest structure on the island, the warehouse roof. Designed to withstand a tsunami, it would be our safest option for riding out any large wave that would flood the six foot high sea walls.  With the natural headlamp of a nearly full moon high overhead, we watched the white breakers on the fringing outer reefs that protect Tern Island from violent northerly winter swells. The waves have been quite high over the past few days, so it would be difficult to detect a tsunami less than six feet. Which was exactly the case. 2230 hours rolled by with no visible change in the sea, no unusual currents, no inundation of the beaches or sea walls. No roaring of water, nothing but the persistent chatter of Brown Noddies arguing with their chicks, ALLLL Night. Protocol states that personal wait out the night on the roof in case any unexpected events happen.

USGS and NOAA called of the tsunami warning by 1am. I’ve read that Maui received the full brunt of the surge, a whapping 2.5 foot increase in average wave height. Luckily this turned out to be more of a drill than an actual emergency, and although from an oceanographic perspective I think it would be fascinating to witness such an awesome force of nature, let’s hope this will be our last tsunami warning of the season.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Settling In

Time has already become irrelevant out here, but I think it’s been over a week since first stepping off a boat onto Tern. Several meals since my last fresh supper on the Kahana and my stomach has finally adjusted to a diet of canned food – I foresee a lot of bean and rice dinners in my future. The six person population is settling into their respective routines. I typically awake around 5am to utilize the unlimited internet allotted time of midnight to 6am, make a cup of French pressed coffee, photograph the stars  before the sun rises, and photograph the birds after the sun rises. This is all usually followed by more coffee drinking in the hammock before the work day begins at 8am. Once the two cups of coffee kick in, I have been doing nest box repairs and maintenance, organizing the field gear, setting up field notebooks, and helping with odd jobs around the barracks. Started the first of what will be a weekly check of about 60 Bonin Petrel nest boxes to follow their breeding success throughout the season, so far only a few lingering Wedge-tailed Shearwater chicks who’s parents have taken over some boxes. The bread and butter of the biological work out here on Tern will be the albatross monitoring, which will likely begin sometime in mid November, when we expect to see the first Black-footed egg layed, with Laysans following a week after. The Black-footed Albatross have been essentially doubling in numbers on a daily basis. There are somewhere in the range of 40 birds on the island, with a few pairs beginning their elaborate courtship displays. There’s expected to be at least 4,000 breeding pairs with an additional 4,000 non-breeders hanging around in the months ahead. Still no Laysan Albatross, but we should see our first individual within the week.

We’ve also been getting to know the small sand islands that pepper the rim of the atoll. We have two functioning fiberglass boats which we use to access these islands. So far I’ve seen Trig Is (essentially a small sand dune), Round Is (an even smaller sand dune), and East Is (the second largest island in French Frigate Shoals). The sand on East Island is stable enough to support vegetation, and a small population of breeding seabirds, Hawaiian Monk Seals, and roughly 90 percent of the worlds Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles. We only counted a few beached turtles, their nesting season ended last month with the emergence of thousands of hatchlings. Sea Turtles drag themselves onto the beach above the high tide line to excavate a ditch where the females deposit their reptilian eggs. The hatchlings eventually dig themselves out of these tombs, typically with all nests hatching in synchrony, and make a quick dash to the relative protection of the sea before getting snatched up by a hungry frigatebird or crab.  Occasionally a few hatchlings become lost and travel in the opposite heading; there are dried up chip sized hatchlings scattered throughout the runway on Tern of turtles that decided to crawl in the wrong direction. It’s thought that turtle hatchlings us the highly reflective surface of the ocean to cue in on the proper bearing to water; perhaps the flat white runway reflects enough starlight to confuse them, or perhaps their biology just didn’t get the memo. Natural selection I suppose.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Royalty Has Arrived

Things are starting to get exciting around here, as if the giant frigatebird chicks weren’t enough, we had our first of what will soon be thousands of the most majestic seabirds land on Tern this afternoon. Gusty rain ridden squalls have been periodically rolling in from the southeast throughout the day, and since it’s our day off, we’ve been reclining around the barracks reading, writing, and eating pasta. After a photography walk around the runway a decided to test out the gym equipment before dinner. As I was leaving the warehouse/gym after 30 minutes of crunches and pushups I was greeted with a graceful silhouette all too familiar from watching birds on Monterey Bay. A Black-footed Albatross glided over the runway; nose into the wind as if it were a Boeing 747 coming in for a landing. Immediately I shouted to the barracks not far from me “BFAL! BFAL!”, the code for Black-footed Albatross. After several passes it eventually landed on the north side of the warehouse amongst juvenile Brown Boobies and Brown Noddies. This was the first time I’d ever seen an albatross on land, the first time Larry and Olivia had ever seen an albatross outside of pictures and museum preps, and as expected it looked pretty awkward out of its element. It walked like an old hunched over man with arms clasped behind back, head bobbing with disapproval from side to side.  According to the records this particular bird with a yellow field readable band C392 was banded here on Tern Island as a chick in 1994, about the same time I was taking my first science class in my fourth year of elementary school. Cool. Our first BFAL will come and go for the next few weeks until more birds show up in November. If this season is a success, there will likely be around 2,500 BFAL and 1,500 Laysan Albatross breeding pairs by Christmas. Let the season begin.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Welcome to Tern

I have made it to Tern. After four long days on the Kahana, fighting a cold, catching tuna, and scanning the ocean for rare seabirds, we finally anchored inside the crescent moon shaped atoll of French Frigate Shoals. I awoke to the sight of La Perouse, a pinnacle of rock in the middle of the shoal, standing tall as the red sun rose from behind a blue horizon. Morgan and I hopped off the Kahana onto a RHIB (Rigid hull inflatable boat) and disembarked at the landing dock on the southwest end of Tern. A small fixed crane aided in the loading and unloading of heavy gear, although the Kona winds were making the landing a bit hairier than normal. A string on juvenile masked boobies swung back and forth on the boom as large white pallet tubs full of the summer crew’s trash and personal items were loaded onto the RHIB. It took many trips to the Kahana and many hours to finish the landing by midday.

There is so much to say about the island and what I’ve experienced thus far, but I have little energy to type. So instead I’ll give a brief history of Tern Island based on Pamela Fiersnon’s book “The Last Atoll”.

French Frigate Shoals is a crescent shaped rim of reef, a sinking atoll formed as the ancient volcanic island beneath it dives into the tropical Pacific. It’s literally as remote as you can get in this ocean, roughly 2,000 miles from the nearest continent and 500 miles from Honolulu on the main Hawaiian Island of Oahu. Tern Island itself is an artificial stretch of land that supports a dense and varied swatch of marine life, from around 16 species of seabirds to a single highly endangered species of seal.

On November 6th 1786, a French explorer by the name Jean Francois de Galaup aboard the frigate La Perouse had an unexpected encounter with the reefs of an unnamed and uncharted shoal. He and another frigate were en route to Macoa from of all places my home away from home Monterey California with a shipment of fur seal pelts when they came upon breaking waves in the dead of night. Within minutes his experienced crew and that of the second frigate managed to about face and avoid the jagged teeth of the shallow reefs without wrecking into the history books, leaving only the name “Basse de Fregates Francaises”, meaning the Shoals of the French Frigates in their wakes.

The newly named French Frigate Shoals remained off the radar for many decades until it was re-discovered in 1858 by a US schooner, and claimed as US Territory under the Guano Act of 1856. Guano was an important source of fertilizer and was heavily harvested in those days, a similar history to the Farallon Islands and many other bird crap laden rocks throughout the Pacific.

As tensions between Japan and the US intensified in the early 1930’s, the US began conducting military training exercises in the placid semi lagoon of French Frigate in preparation for a pending conflict. They would fly seaplanes 586 miles from Honolulu since there were no large islands within the shoals to land on. Eventually a major airstrip and community was erected on Midway Atoll further down the island chain, but fighter planes were unable make the long flight from Honolulu to the newly established base at Midway. Thus in 1943 the 53 acre Tern Island was born out of compacted crushed coral and sand, to serve as a refueling point for planes destined for Midway. Shaped like a large aircraft carrier, the island’s sole function was that of a runway, no birds were allowed to nest and no vegetation allowed to take root throughout the duration of World War II.

After the War had ended Tern Island, again like many other abandoned military islands, was handed over to the US Coast Guard. They occupied the island for several decades, and tried as best they could to maintain a normal life in the middle of nowhere, complete with dogs for moral and a tennis court for exercise. Despite these amities it’s rumored that a man hanged himself from boredom in the barracks I now live in, and his ghost still haunts the long corridors at night. It seems every island has its ghost stories.

Eventually the Coast Guard willingly forfeited possession of Tern Island to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who now serve of the active stewards of the island. Much has changed since those early days, as vegetation and seabirds they support have slowly taken over this precious oasis in a desert of blue.  Most of the seabirds out here rely on a native shrub called Naupaka for nesting habitat, a shrub that has not yet established itself on Tern. Tournefortia (if I’m spelling it correctly) however, a similar shrub not native to Hawaii but of which is found throughout the tropical Pacific, has established in place of Naupaka. Its rigid limbs and woolly broad leaves provide a critical substrate for seabirds to lay an egg on. Different seabirds use the plant in various ways. Frigatebirds at the very top and boobies a layer below build rudimentary nest platforms of collected sticks and guano atop the shrubs canopy, White Terns and Black Noddies lay their eggs on the branches within the shrub, and Christmas Shearwaters and Red-tailed Tropicbirds nest on the ground at the plants shady base. Although traditionally burrow nesters, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters will occasionally lay their egg beneath a heavy branch and in a dense shady patch of Tournefortia. Without this shrub, about 10 feet in circumference and 6 feet high, these birds would not be successful on Tern. It’s amazing what a little vegetation will do to spruce up and diversify a community.

The barracks left behind now serve as critical habitat for the researchers that inhabit this island year round. The building itself, split into two parallel hallways and one main living area, contain roughly 15 personal rooms, several offices, at least three bathrooms I have found so far, a large kitchen and pantry, storage for scientific gear, a shoe room, a patio, a shade house for native plant propagation, and a large recreation room complete with couches, 2 pool tables, a ping pong and foosball table, and a wide selection of books and movies. There’s also sheds for stowing boats and tractors, a warehouse with tools and construction material, and a large gym with weights and workout videos. The tennis court has been converted to a catchment pad for drinking water stored in aging redwood tanks, while large solar panels and a decent bank of batteries provide (in theory) electricity. We eat mainly canned food, and have enough rice, flower, and butter to keep us alive when our supply of Poptarts runs low. My room has a view of the ocean and is often coated with a film of salty air. Hopefully my computer survives the winter, if not Mom now you know what I want for Christmas.

Should be an interesting 5 months indeed – stay tuned.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Bonin Cloud

After a long night of reluctantly drinking tequila shots that were generously supplied to us by the crew of our transport vessel the Kahana, and playing several rounds of foosball at the “All Hands” bar just down the street, I awoke to a predictably cloudy head. Luckily a managed to hold down some eggs and bacon for breakfast, and after a mug of coffee and a dip in the lagoon, I was ready to start the day. Honestly most of my morning was spent napping.

Later in the afternoon I rode my bike around a few new stretches of Midway I hadn’t seen yet. I spotted about a dozen manta rays doing loops and back flips in the main harbor, feeding on tiny plankton and larvae. They had roughly six foot wingspans, not the big mantas most are familiar with, but a smaller variety I’ve seen both in Baja and Costa Rica. I photographed the Pacific-golden Plovers and Bristle-thighed Curlews, and went on a quick hike through the pine forest to enjoy the White Terns and Brown Noodys some more. Just before dinner we checked out turtle beach and found 10-15 Green Sea Turtles basking in the sun on the sand, and watched the Kahana leave the harbor on its way to Kure Atoll 60 miles northwest of Midway.

The highlight of the day was actually the day’s end. Royce and Corey (both going to Laysan) and Morgan and I (both going to Tern) rode to the end of the old runway to a northwest point called Rusty Can. Just before the sun began its rapid descent below the horizon, small black shapes started to appear from beyond the reef, occasionally arching high above the turquoise water. This is what we had been waiting for, the nightly arrival of thousands of small seabirds called petrels. Petrels, like their relatives the albatrosses, shearwaters, and storm-petrels, spend all of their time and indeed a majority of their lives out in the open ocean. Making a living on fish and squid and sleeping on the water, they fly great distances across a featureless ocean; only returning to these remote atolls for the necessary task of finding a mate and laying an egg. These are Bonin Petrels that breed on Midway, and they number in the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. As night falls the sky becomes clotted with petrels, their calls which remind me of the sound your stomach makes when you’re hungry, fill the island with the vibrant commotion of life. Once the petrels locate their burrows and identify their mates, the calls diminish, so the best time to view this nightly phenomenon is just after sunset. We used to travel 50 miles offshore on 12 hour pelagic bird trips in Monterey hoping to spot a brief glimpse of these birds, and here they’re so thick that we had to dodge at least a half dozen resting on the roads.  Amazing. I’m told there is a smaller population of Bonin Petrels on Tern, but I’m glad I had the chance to witness these birds here on Midway.

Midway Across the Pacific

I’m typing this while lying on a double bed in an air conditioned room at the Charlie Hotel, on a remote atoll midway between California and Tokyo, appropriately named Midway Atoll. I can hear cockroaches rummaging through the garbage bin by the sink and thousands of Bonin Petrels calling from outside my window, as night takes over the street light free neighborhood. I just had one of those moments when I closed my eyes and wondered how the hell I ended up out in the middle of nowhere, in a setting as bizarre and unique as this. I finally made it to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, a place I’ve also wanted to visit ever since reading Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross. Here is my synopsis of the first day.

Boarded a fancy G2 private jet around 7am, and left Honolulu and the famous Diamond Head behind us as we pierced the clouds. The plane was as smooth as butter in the air, with two couches facing the aisle and six bucket seats arranged in a non-traditional pattern towards the back. We were free to move around the cabin and could help ourselves to the snake bar and drinks (no alcohol of course). It was awesome to say the least, not sure I will ever fly in such style again. En route to Midway we followed the Papahanaumokuakea National Monument and flew over Oahu, Kauai, Nihoa, French Frigate Shoals (my soon to be home), what we thought was the shallow reef of Brook’s Bank, Laysan Island, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, and finally landed on the runway of Midway Atoll 2 hours and 45 minutes later. Aside from our ears popping and the blue ocean out the windows it was hard to notice we were flying 40000 feet up in a jet.

Once we landed hundreds of Brown Noodys and White Terns greeted us as we taxed to the hanger, where we disembarked and hopped onto limo-sized golf carts, passing by the power plant, greenhouse, and welcome to Midway sign. We were given an orientation and our rooms at the Charlie Hotel, and breaked for lunch. I was so excited to explore the island, but hungry enough to wait until after eating. 
After lunch, the fragmented Tern and complete Laysan team headed out on a bike tour around the island. We each get our own bike during our three day stay. The sheer beauty of this place is almost overwhelming. White Terns flutter around everywhere we look, perched in the trees and lazily flying in a lofty pattern overhead. Brown Noodys grunted at us as we passed their adult sized fledglings, occasionally swooping gingerly, although nothing compared to the aggressive assaults of the Western Gulls on the Farallones. White-tailed tropic bird chicks were crotched beneath walkways and low branches, and Great Frigatebirds chased Masked Boobies above the tree line. We even came upon a few Wedge-tailed Sheartwater chicks still in their downy stage sitting in the sun at their burrow entrances. In terms of shorebirds, Pacific Golden Plovers with their handsome yellow tinted heads, Ruddy Turnstones, and Bristle-thighed Curlews gave out alert calls as we rode past flocks of them on the roads. We even came across a few Laysan Ducks which were introduced to Midway from Laysan and seem to be flourishing here. It’s too early for Albatross, but in a few months the landscape will become overrun with thousands of Laysan, Black-footed, and if their lucky a few Short-tailed Albatross. The only albatrosses we’ve seen are the Short-tailed decoys on the hill and many plastic-filled carcasses of chicks that never made it the fledging.

We finished the day with a swim in the lagoon, which was slightly cooler than Oahu but all the more refreshing. The water is so green in the inner lagoon that the puffy clouds overhead turn turquoise in the reflection. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s only day one. Can’t believe this is going to be my life for the next 6 months.