MIDWAY ATOLL - MAY, 1998

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

(NOTE: Midway Atoll was, rather briefly, opened to tourism during the late 1990s. For a number of reasons, some economic, some political, the area is once again closed to tourism. Ken Kurtis was fortunate enough to visit Midway in 1998 and filed this report. You may not be able to go there to dive, but hopefully this is the next best thing.)

Although technically part of the Hawaiian island chain, Midway Atoll is a world unto itself. If I was the scuba marketing director for Midway, I think my slogan would be, "Come for the diving, stay for the birds."

Although the diving was interesting (but not spectacular), what REALLY got my juices flowing were all the birds. Not just a few. Not just a bunch. A million of them . . . literally. And all over every piece of ground.

Midway Atoll serves as the largest nesting/breeding ground for the Laysan Albatross, better known as the Gooney Bird. (If you’ve ever seen footage of these guys coming in for a landing and subsequently belly flopping as they skid to a stop, you can [1] understand how they got their nickname, and [2] be 99% assured that the film was shot at Midway.) Birds, gooneys and other species, simply take over the island. And their clacking, clucking, flapping, and flopping can’t help but to get your attention and win your heart.

Midway’s big claim to fame came during World War II when American forces surprised key elements of the Japanese fleet and scored a stunning naval victory that turned the course of the Pacific war. As you walk around Midway, even though the actual battle occurred almost 150 miles away, there are still plenty of things to remind you of what took place here almost 50 years ago.

Midway is one of those rare destinations that offers us remoteness, interesting diving, historical significance, and plenty of non-diving diversions. But it’s definitely NOT for everyone.

Maybe we just hit an off week, but I’d rate the diving as good, but not phenomenal. And if you’re looking for lush coral growth, Midway’s not the place. Because Midway lies very near to the 37th parallel (better known as the "Darwin Line", marking the northernmost boundary of coral growth) coral is sporadic. But the fish life is pretty interesting.

Many species that would be rare in other places are commonplace at Midway. We spent time diving with a photographer from the Japanese magazine Geo, whose sole mission was to photograph the relatively-rare (in other parts of the world) Japanese Angelfish. On one dive at Midway, we saw about a dozen.

We also encountered Dragon Morays, male and female Masked Angels, Psychedelic Wrasses, Giant Trevally, and a host of other species either rarely observed or not sighted at all in other parts of the world.

The typical plan is one or two boat dives in the morning, lunch, and then a single dive in the early afternoon. This was nice as it also gave us plenty of time to observe the birds and explore the island, but if you’re the type of diver who wants 5 or 6 dives a day, it’s not going to happen here. And night diving is rare (non-existent during my stay).

Perhaps the most interesting dive of the trip was the Corsair wreck. This was a U.S. fighter plane that crashed (the pilot bailed out and survived) upon approach to Midway during World War II. Calling it a wreck is a little generous. "Wreckage" might be more appropriate as it consists of the wing and half of the fuselage lying upside-down in 110’ of water.

As you descend, you can vaguely discern the silhouette of the plane against the sandy bottom. Draw nearer and you’ll see hundreds of fish that call this home. You’ll also observe bullet magazines and individual rounds lying in the sand. Here you’ll encounter the Japanese angels mentioned earlier and a reclusive dragon moray that lives in the fuselage. But watch your computer and your air pressure because at this depth, you don’t have much time.

Other sites we explored included Chromis Corridor (huge schools of blue chromis), Fish Hole (where we snorkeled with inquisitive giant manta rays), Phoenix Cauldron (a series of channels, tunnels, and holes on a rocky reef), and an unnamed wreck that we called the Channel Wreck (simply because it sank right outside the harbor channel) which offered us a really great variety of fish and other critters.

Although I wouldn’t recommend going to Midway just for the diving, I do think it was a fabulous eco-adventure when you include diving, birding, and history. And because it’s a place that few divers have explored, it also gives you some unique bragging rights for the evenings you trade tales with fellow scuba addictees.

Would I go back again? You betcha. And maybe I’ll see you there.
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