Get to know Hawaii's remote isles
YEARS AGO, I finagled permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to sail to French Frigate Shoals, the main biological field station of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
My purpose was to work with the biologists there for six weeks and then write a series for this newspaper about life on the atoll.
It took months of paperwork and planning, but I finally got everything ready for the adventure. I called my mother in Wisconsin. "We head out tomorrow," I said. "I'll call you as soon as I get back."
"Do you have to go?" she said.
"Mom, please," I said. "This is the chance of a lifetime."
She sighed. "I know. I just wish you didn't have to sail all the way to France."
We lucky few who have been to Hawaii's northwest islands chuckle over this story, but my mom's mistake was understandable. France? Heck, to most Americans, the northwest chain might as well be on Mars.
Even Hawaii residents have a hard time appreciating this 1,200-mile line of islands stretching from Nihoa to Kure. The atolls are tiny, they're hard to get to and you can't go there anyway.
Maybe someday you can. Some officials would like to reopen Midway to visitors. Nature lovers can only hope. Midway is so bursting with marine life a visit can reduce even seasoned biologists to tears.
Whatever happens at Midway, the refuge still belongs to the animals. These are the breeding grounds of 14 million seabirds, nearly all of our green sea turtles, Hawaii's critically endangered monk seals and countless reef fish and invertebrates.
I usually feel a little guilty gushing about this fantastic place when most people can't see it for themselves. Now, however, fellow nature lovers have a couple of ways to enjoy the refuge without even leaving the house.
ONE EYE-POPPING view is inside the coffee table book "Archipelago, Portraits of Life in the World's Most Remote Island Sanctuary," by David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton (National Geographic Society, 2005).
A friend gave me a copy as a gift, and the book thrills me each time I open it. You know how much fun it is to page through a good National Geographic magazine? This is bigger and better.
Another way to get a feeling for our unique northwest islands is to watch TV the next two Wednesday evenings. Ocean advocate and explorer Jean-Michele Cousteau has made a documentary film about his journey up the chain, called "Voyage to Kure."
PBS will broadcast the first part of this excellent two-part show on Wednesday at 8 p.m. The second part will be a week later, April 12, also at 8 p.m.
Where in the world is a place that hosts more than 7,000 marine plants and animals, a quarter of them endemic, and underwater contains one of the last large-scale, intact coral reef ecosystems in the world?
Well, it ain't in France. It's right here in our own back yard. Read, tune in and discover one more reason to feel lucky to live in Hawaii.