A spit of sunbaked sand far out in the Pacific Ocean reveals much of what is wrong about the world. But heartbreak and hope keep close company on Midway Atoll.
Some see this remote, tiny chain of volcanic islands as godforsaken, haunted by the specter of war, a vivid case study in mankind’s destruction of the planet.
Pacific Grove’s Jan Loomis prefers a more determined and optimistic opinion. She calls Midway Atoll by its two Hawaiian names: Pihemanu, meaning “loud din of birds,” or Kuaihelani, which translates to “backbone of heaven.”
Loomis’ idealism, drive and love of nature and birding led her to achieve a once-unthinkable bucket list item—to visit this undeveloped, unincorporated atoll at the far northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago.
You can’t just book a ticket to Midway on Expedia. The last tourist departed in 2012, leaving 40-50 inhabitants (volunteers and federal employees) focused on airfield management and conservation. Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial are currently closed to public visitation.
Loomis found her way, though, as a volunteer for an exclusive nesting albatross census team led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Midway’s administrative agency.
Following exhaustive interviews and background checks, the 60-year-old staff RN for Visiting Nurses Association’s Travel Medicine Clinic received word last fall that she had been accepted as one of only a dozen volunteers among worldwide applicants.
In December, Loomis—who once left a job to spend three years living on a sailboat to explore the coast of Mexico—flew 3,000 miles and shelled out roughly $3,000 for the “privilege” of living six weeks in dilapidated former U.S. military barracks. Her mission? To count nesting Laysan albatross at this haven for 3 million individual birds, and home to the world’s largest albatross colony.
“Giving back was the key, doing something completely selfless,” she says. “It was a privilege to be there and participate in a critical bird count.”
Documenting the albatross population provides a clearer picture of the state of our oceans and the ravages of climate change and pollution.
There’s no debate: Midway Atoll is a refuge choked with refuse. Out of sight, and too often out of mind, a phenomenon known as the Pacific Trash Vortex spins a massive collection of plastic and floating debris onto these once-pristine shores.
“Seeing what our over-consumption of plastic is doing to our oceans was so sobering,” Loomis says. “I knew it would be bad, but I had no idea how graphic it would be. We were in the middle of nowhere, and everywhere we looked there was plastic.”
On Day 1 of orientation, team leaders showed Loomis how to do laundry. The first task? Make a beeline to the beach to select a laundry basket.
The amount of plastic washed ashore here is staggering, and it includes wayward laundry bins. “It’s unsettling,” Loomis says. Such large items, however, are not the biggest problem, for at least they can be collected.
Microplastics, degraded over time, represent the most profound threat. According to Greenpeace, nine of every 10 seabirds have ingested plastic, and marine plastic pollution kills 1 million seabirds each year.
On Midway, albatross chicks routinely die from ingesting plastic, provided by parents who forage at sea before regurgitating into the mouths of hungry nestlings.
Laboring each day in her sandshoes (ingenious plywood footwear designed to help counters avoid collapsing burrows of nesting birds), Loomis came across many dead adult seabirds grotesquely decayed around toxic pieces of colorful plastic—beads, buttons, domino game pieces, cigarette lighters—that they mistook for food.
Loomis has always found seabirds fascinating. She serves as a volunteer naturalist with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, as well as a field observer to monitor and protect nesting black oystercatchers in Monterey Bay.
But nothing inspired her quite like meeting the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s resident Laysan albatross Makana. It ignited in her a passion for these remarkable birds, who soar effortlessly and spectacularly, aloft for weeks on end as they travel across the northern Pacific Ocean, from Costa Rica to the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea.
The Laysan is a “smaller” species, with a wingspan of 6 feet, but it’s adept at tucking in those wings and diving to great depths in search of food.
Following a behind-the-scenes Aquarium donor tour, Loomis traveled to Kauai, Hawaii, to observe wild albatross up close. “The more I learned about these amazing birds, the more motivated I became to donate my time and energy to helping breeding populations recover,” she says.
Albatross face long odds. Midway represents for them a predator-free safe haven, yet mankind’s misdeeds still pose a threat, from rising sea levels and plastic pollution, to deadly lead paint flecks from old windswept buildings that sprouted after the U.S. military planted its flag on the strategic atoll. (From June 4-6, 1944, U.S. forces defeated the Japanese in the Battle of Midway, a turning point in World War II.)
Those echoes of history and what Loomis called “rusted remnants of war” intensified an emotionally and physically taxing six-day work week. Volunteers got half Sunday off, and Loomis spent it sketching, sleeping, or picking up plastic along the beach.
At night, volunteers would swap life stories, or hang out at the former military bowling alley from the 1950s (four lanes still work) or play bingo. “A time warp,” she says.
She liked the food, prepared cafeteria style by contractors from Thailand. “You could eat Thai food three times a day if you wanted.”
A barge arrives with supplies every six months, but a garden and a hydroponic greenhouse produce some fresh vegetables. Everything else is frozen. Authorities allow seven fish to be caught per month, “so when we had seafood it was a big deal,” she says.
When a charter plane arrived, sending and receiving mail became a priority. “I had no access to email for six weeks,” says Loomis.
Unplugging became part of the appeal, though, living a simple life in service to something bigger than herself.
In the end, the count showed a slight increase in nesting Laysan. “They are surviving despite our bonehead moves, our lack of vision,” she says.
Loomis returned home to much interest in her trip, with local groups, including the Aquarium, asking her to speak.
Her message? “Every effort makes a difference. Get involved in policies, support legislation, make your voice heard.”
And, above all, be reverential. “Being that close to nature is humbling.
It makes you feel small,” Loomis says. “And that’s a good feeling.”