Midway Albatross Count: Day 12

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Midway Albatross Count: Day 12

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island , Kauai , Maui , Oahu
Dec 25, 2008

We may not get weekends off, but we albatross counters do get Christmas Day off. The serious birders, however, participated in the Audubon Society’s 109th annual Christmas Bird Count today. I opted to go snorkeling.

So Midway is an atoll, right. That means, since Midway first started forming some 30 million years ago over the hotspot upon which Big Island now sits, the once vast main island has submerged and eroded to such a point that only the tops of the tallest mountains sit above sea level—and barely. Circling the three low islands that make up Midway Atoll is a fringing, barrier reef that continues to grow upward as the island sinks downward. The reef keeps the big waves, for which the Pacific is famous, at bay. (At least, usually.) The atoll itself measures approximately five miles in diameter.

In the 1930s, Pan American Airlines built a hotel on pilings some 30 feet above the reef. The ticket price for a seat aboard the company’s “Flying Clippers” was three times the average annual salary of an American. I have no idea what the nightly rate was for a room at this hotel, but I do know the place attracted Ernest Hemingway.

Given the surf pounding the reef on the north side, you couldn’t have paid me to stay at this hotel. I respect the ocean too much.

I would—and did—snorkel in the crisp waters inside the reef. We swam around the remains of the hotel—iron columns sticking out of the sea a few feet—and we followed the reef until we got to an opening to the sea. The water rushing in there was like rafting on a cold river. The current shot me back to the boat like a rubber band snapping. The fish sightings were average—tangs, triggerfish, goatfish, boxfish, gobies, and surgeonfish. The big winner in the fish category was an alua bigger than what anyone has ever since in the Main Hawaiian Islands—and a suspected contributor to the demise of the Hawaiian Monk Seal. The coral was more plentiful than what I see off Kauai. It was a little surprising to see coral growing in such chilly water; they typically like the warm water of the tropics. Hands down, though, the most impressive thing about snorkeling in this lagoon was the visibility. The water clarity was spectacular.

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