Honolulu Star-Bulletin Local News

The New Midway

It's for the Birds
The Ecotourists

By Joan Conrow, Star-Bulletin
Albatrosses nest near World War II equipment on Eastern island at Midway Atoll.

By Joan Conrow

SAND ISLAND, Midway Atoll - Seabirds again reign supreme on Midway Atoll.

Gone are the days when poachers decimated flocks of birds to gain feathers for the hat trade, and machine guns and front-end loaders cleared albatrosses from military runways.

Now planes arrive and depart in the dark to avoid hitting birds in flight. Albatross chicks that wander onto the runway are collected by pickups when a plane is due, then returned to their places when all is clear. And contractors cleaning the island prior to the June 30 closure of the naval air field hire men to clap their hands shoo birds from work sites and heavy truck traffic.

"In the '50s and '60s, they were actually slaughtering the albatross by the thousands up there," said John Naughton, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It's just amazing, the change in attitude."

The shifting laws, values and attitudes that have caused some to embrace wildlife conservation spell a major transformation for the remote Pacific atoll, bringing a new landlord and a destiny that hinges on the success of ecotourism.

"You may not look like it, or feel like it, but you're all guinea pigs," Mike Gautreaux told a handful of tourists during a recent orientation meeting that is mandatory for all Midway visitors.

As island general manager of Georgia-based Midway Phoenix Corp., it is Gautreaux's job to iron out the operational kinks before tourism begins in earnest at the end of June. That's when the firm can increase its visitor count from 30 to 100 people per day.

Midway Phoenix has been bringing in tourists for the past five months at the behest of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which assumed ownership of the atoll last Halloween. The service had run a refuge there since 1988, but its mission was always secondary to the military, which has controlled Midway since 1903.

Now that the service is running the show on Midway, said refuge manager Kenneth Niethammer, it can expand its wildlife conservation activities and efforts to educate people about the value of the Northern Hawaiian Islands refuge system. "Midway gives them a window into that world."

It's a remote and beautiful world of coral sands and turquoise lagoons, inhabited by millions of albatrosses, boobies, frigates, noddies, terns, petrels and migrating shorebirds, along with endangered Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles, dolphins and fish. And it's reached only by boat or a four-hour plane ride from Kauai.

But the inaccessibility that serves breeding and resting wildlife so well poses major financial and logistical problems for humans. The service, although gaining ownership of a harbor, runways and buildings on Midway, was given no additional funding to support such facilities. So it turned to the private sector in hopes of drumming up the money to keep the refuge going.

The relationship between Midway Phoenix Corp. and the service has taken both into uncharted territory. The partnership is a first for the service, which is eyeing similar arrangements elsewhere in its cash-strapped agency. And Midway Phoenix, with extensive military transportation contracts, is new to the visitor industry.

Both sides say the experiment is working well. "The biggest challenge for all of us is keeping communication lines open and active because so many people are involved in any one decision," said Niethammer, who has found himself negotiating with the Navy and its contractors, Midway Phoenix and its three subcontractors and a host of government agencies.

"Every year we will re-evaluate what's going on, look at whether restrictions need to be tightened or loosened," Niethammer said. "It's kind of a living agreement."

For Midway Phoenix, the struggle has been creating a management structure and figuring out how to supply the atoll with provisions months in advance. "Logistics is going to be the key to this thing," Gautreaux said. "That, and getting the people to work well together."

Midway Atoll, born 25 million years ago from the same volcanic hot spot in the Pacific plate that created the other Hawaiian islands, has eroded over the years into three sandy coral islands encircled by a protective reef.

With its vast flocks of seabirds, abundant marine life, colorful military history and spectacular beaches and lagoon, it seems an ideal setting for the marriage of conservation and tourism.

Still, it is a long way from anywhere, and that makes for an expensive journey. "People have to really want to come here, but they are coming," Gautreaux said, noting that "99 percent of the visitors are happy and a few expect more. Maybe they come here expecting a luxury resort, although we never present it that way. This is not Waikiki, this is not Disney World and it is never going to be."

Many people know Midway primarily for its decisive World War II battles, and veterans previously stationed at the atoll were among some of the earliest visitors. "I'm very pleased it's opened up because of the World War II vets," said Lt. Bill Shoemaker, officer-in-charge of the base. "They are the ones who made this island great. It had such a tremendous impact on their lives."

Gautreaux said Midway Phoenix plans to retain the military ambience of the atoll, a move that Fish and Wildlife supports. "To be different, we kind of have to keep Midway the way it is," Niethammer said. "We need to present the whole package. That's what really sells Midway."

Niethammer said that's become an important consideration on Midway. Visitors are needed to help Midway Phoenix recoup its investment in such big-ticket items as sewage and communications systems, a trash incinerator and major building renovations.

"That is the wild card here, how long Midway Phoenix can hold on," Niethammer said. "We're all hopeful it's going to work, and I think it will."

Other government agencies and the island's ecotourism operator said they intend to ensure that conservation prevails as well. "It has to," said Naughton of the National Marine Fisheries Services. "We're not worried about the economic end of things, just protecting the (wildlife) habitat and resources up there. We're not gonna compromise that."

Barbara Bilgre of Oceanic Society Expeditions, which offers ecotourist excursions to Midway, said her firm also will be watching to see that the needs of wildlife aren't sacrificed to the tourist experience.

"We don't want to see it changed. We don't want to see increased tourism because it could change the refuge. But the good thing is that everyone involved gets to have their say in the future of Midway," Bilgre said.

Gautreaux said Midway Phoenix expects to recoup its investment in Midway, and believes it can do so without undermining conservation goals.

"It's a tradeoff between what's good for the wildlife and what the people want to see, but the focus has to be on the wildlife. It's the most significant thing about this island."

Gautreaux said his firm's agreement with Fish and Wildlife is "a very good plan, but it requires constant adjustment. We talk a lot and there's a lot of give and take, a lot of compromise. But there's no conflict, not yet."

Fish and Wildlife already has made concessions, such as permitting a beach-front restaurant and pavilion and a citrus orchard to provide fresh fruit for guests. It's also deciding whether visitors will be allowed to keep the fish they catch, collect lobsters and glass floats or engage in other activities that go beyond the ecotourism maxim of "leave only footprints, take only pictures."

Many such pastimes are now allowed under the Navy code, which will remain in effect until the military pulls out. Meanwhile, Fish and Wildlife attorneys are trying to decide whether the atoll, a government possession, should be governed by a new code or state of Hawaii laws.

"It's going to be a balancing act," Niethammer said, but he's hopeful Midway will emerge from the experiment as a model proving that "people can use and live with the resources, but also protect them."

Naughton concurred. "All of us are in agreement that ecotourism can work, it's just a matter of managing the people once they get up there. There's nothing that can't be worked out."

Animals, ambience make Midway a tough place to leave

SAND ISLAND, Midway Atoll - Maybe it's the sheer numbers of birds, or the remoteness, or the gorgeous white sand beaches and crystal clear water in dreamy shades of aqua. Or it could be the unique ambience of the place, a cheery blend of tiny town, summer camp, military base and campground.

Whatever the reason, folks seem to go ga-ga over Midway.

Mike Gautreaux, who manages the atoll's infrastructure and tourism services, has picked out his gravesite. "I plan on dying right here, I like it so much. It's a dream place to me."

His feelings are shared by Heidi Auman, who estimates she works 70-hour weeks - 50 of them as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer and the rest as a substitute stewardess on the sole air carrier - in hopes of securing a permanent job on the atoll. "I'll do just about anything to stay on Midway," she vowed.

Most agree the atoll's charm lies in its birds and its people.

Albatrosses swoop low over the sea, their white breasts and underwings reflecting the intense turquoise hues of the water. Ashore, they nest on every bare patch of land, their constantly clacking bills making the same soft drumming as rain on a tin roof. Younger birds endlessly practice the courting ritual, their circling dances and howl-like cries lending a surrealistic air.

At night, bonin petrels come dive-bombing, while during the day, curious, big-eyed fairy terns flutter at shoulder height. "It's like being in wonderland," said Navy Lt. Bill Shoemaker.

He's the last officer-in-charge of Midway, overseeing the June 30 military pullout, and he wishes he had come earlier. "I love the community. It's so much of a Mayberry-type place," he said, referring to the idyllic television town where Andy Griffith was sheriff. "We all ride bikes and wave."

Shoemaker also enjoys the atoll's ethnic diversity, provided by the roughly 180 foreign nationals who work in food service, maintenance, construction and other support jobs. The men hail from Thailand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, working for about $1.10 an hour, plus room and board.

Most of them will remain, working for Midway Phoenix instead of Navy contractor Piquniq Management Corp. The atoll will average about 250 permanent residents, nearly all of them men. That's down from a military high of about 3,000 during the Cold War.

Most of the contract workers live in converted military barracks, while other residents have small homes. All are clustered within a block of the dining hall, gym, weight room and clinic.

Midway Mall, with its tiny general store, offices and bowling alley, is also within a block. Its all-hands club is a popular gathering place, and the whole town turns out for bingo on Saturday nights.

"It's always been my fantasy to live on a small island where I don't lock my doors, I know everybody's name and I just do dolphin research," says Barbara Bilgre, a naturalist who runs the Midway operations of Oceanic Society Expeditions. "And this is it."

Midway Atoll

Midway Atoll is composed of Sand, Eastern and Spit islands and their encircling protective coral reef

Where: 1,250 miles west-northwest of Honolulu

Size: 1,534 acres, approximately 5 miles in diameter

Age: 25-30 million years old

Getting there

Tourist activities are provided solely by Midway Phoenix Corp. and its three subcontractors:

Midway Dive-N-Snorkel offers five- and eight-day scuba diving and snorkeling packages ranging in price from $740 to $2,994, plus airfare. Call 888-329-9559

Oceanic Society Expeditions offers four-, five- and eight-day natural history tours at prices ranging from $1,550 to $2,250 per person, including airfare from Lihue. Call 800-326-7491

Midway Sport Fishing Inc. provides weeklong big-game fishing packages ranging from $4,000 to $10,000 per person, including airfare from Lihue. Call 770-254-8326.

To book airfare and rooms only, call Midway Phoenix at 770-387-1900. Round-trip airfare is $999 from Lihue; $699 through June 1 for Hawaii residents. Prices for a room and three meals range from $100 to $200 per night. Bicycles and cellular telephones can be rented for $5 each per day; golf carts are $25 per day.

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