Originally created 02/05/06

It's a long way to Midway

MIDWAY ATOLL - Out more than a thousand miles from the closest outpost of civilization, the pale sands of Midway Atoll peek out above the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean like an oasis.

Midway's sublime natural beauty and rich history as the site of a critical World War II battle make it an attractive spot to visit.

It's also a place you can't get to easily from anywhere, unless you're a really plucky traveler.

If you don't own a boat or plane for the 1,200-mile journey from Honolulu, the main options for private travel to the distant atoll can be daunting: either board a cruise from Asia, hitch a ride with one of a handful of resident government workers or volunteer for three months of environmental duty.

Between 1997 and 2001, the atoll received 1,500 to 2,000 tourists and other visitors each year.

Public flights to Midway, which is a National Wildlife Refuge, ended in 2002 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's sole tourist operator pulled out, citing its difficulty making a profit on trips to the remote islands. The Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the island.

One of the more luxurious but roundabout options for getting to Midway is to book passage on one of up to four cruise ships that anchor outside the atoll each year and ferry passengers across the turquoise water of the 5-mile wide atoll to Sand Island.

One cruise ship scheduled to stop at Midway this year is the Saga Ruby, which is operated by the United Kingdom-based Saga Holidays company. The ship departs Tianjin Xingang, China, on March 3, bound for Southampton, England, with a stop at Midway en route to Hawaii.

Those who boat ashore might be treated to a performance by the atoll's 200 or so spinner dolphins, named for their propensity for spinning leaps out of the water.

On land, visitors will be greeted by members of the world's largest colony of Laysan albatrosses - about 400,000 nesting pairs - and taken on a four- to six-hour tour of the atoll's main island.

Japanese destroyers shelled the U.S. military base at Midway on the same day Pearl Harbor was bombed, Dec. 7, 1941.

The area is better known for the Battle of Midway, which began June 3, 1942, with an attempt by Japanese fighter pilots to destroy U.S. forces at the atoll. The Americans successfully counterattacked in a harrowing three-day fight.

For the less history-minded, there's only one beach open to visitors. The others are reserved for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Gleaming white, gorgeous and empty, the beach on the island's northern side makes Oahu's Lanikai Beach look like a Saturday at Coney Island.

Taking a cruise to Midway could inspire you to take on another means of getting to the island - volunteering. That's how Eldridge and Thelma Park got here.

The retired couple from Aiea, Hawaii, have been busy in the refuge's greenhouse nurturing native bunch grass, which is being used to restore the natural ecosystem of the atoll's Eastern Island.

"It's nice, slow. You can get away from the city for a while," said Mr. Park, a 48-year veteran of the U.S. Postal Service.

Volunteers are expected to stay on the island at least three months, which can be a bit tough for those who require urban comforts or a lot of social interaction. Midway plays host to about 40 volunteers throughout the year. With only about four federal employees and a little less than 50 additional staff members, it makes for a tight group.

Though selection is weighted toward those with a background in biology, it is not necessary.

"Basically, if you're willing to do hard work and do what we want, that's usually enough," said Ken Foote, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman.

Those tasks include projects keeping tabs on the health of albatross pairs - who mate for life - and ripping the life out of the scourge of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the invasive flower verbesina.

Some would-be Midway visitors say there should be more direct and less arduous travel options.

Members of groups such as Supporters and Veterans of Midway Island say the Fish and Wildlife Service is thwarting efforts to bring back regular flights in favor of protecting wildlife.

"It's the environmentalists against the Navy veterans. And right now the Fish and Wildlife Service has all the cards in their hand and the veterans have nothing," said Gary Randall, of Brightwood, Ore., who was stationed in his late teens on Midway from 1977 to 1979.

It might take a year before there's a regularly scheduled service to Midway again, but the Fish and Wildlife Service is working to get it going, said Barbara Maxfield, the chief of Pacific Islands visitor services for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the island.

"We very much want to share this with the American public. It's just finding a way to do it in a cost-effective manner," she said.

Though Midway "will never be the Disneyland of the Pacific," visitors are always welcome, said Barry Christenson, the refuge manager.

The half-dozen sailors who stop by each year can look forward to an invitation to the refuge staff's bowling alley.

"Because it's kind of a rare event, it's actually kind of fun to have visitors," Mr. Christenson said.

If You Go

SAGA RUBY: Departs Singapore March 3 for Southampton, England, stopping at Midway Atoll. For details, visit www.sagaholidays.co.uk/ and click on "Saga Cruising."

MIDWAY ATOLL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE: How to volunteer, World War II history and background on the atoll's wildlife at www.fws.gov/midway/


HAWAIIAN ISLANDS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE: www.fws.gov/pacificislands/wnwr/pnorthwestnwr.html


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