Conservation: Seabird Rescue on Midway Atoll

Arriving in time to see this spring's tsunami devastate a critical seabird sanctuary, a photojournalist helps biologists save the birds and writes an eyewitness account of her experience

  • Connie Toops
  • Jun 15, 2011

North Carolina-based photojournalist Connie Toops was working on Midway Atoll in March when the powerful tsunami resulting from Japan's magnitude-9 earthquake rolled into the region. The quake occurred at 2:46 p.m. on March 11 in Japan, or 6:46 p.m. on March 10 at Midway, which lies across the International Dateline. Soon after her return home, Toops filed the following exclusive report:

March 9: It was my second day at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, 1,260 miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii. I was on Eastern Island, one of three isles comprising the 1,498 emergent acres and surrounding coral reefs that make up the refuge, which lies within Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Remote and difficult for humans to reach, Midway is a seabird haven, and I was there during peak breeding season.

Petrels, terns, boobies, frigates—nearly 3 million individuals representing 21 species—gather here annually to raise chicks at one of the country's most important seabird colonies. Midway boasts the world's largest breeding populations of both Laysan and black-footed albatrosses (482,909 and 28,581 nesting pairs, respectively, in 2011). The refuge also shelters approximately 500 endangered Laysan ducks (2010 estimate), translocated here from Laysan Island, about 400 miles southeast of Midway. The move was part of the Laysan duck recovery plan to reduce the species' risk of extinction by establishing additional populations within its presumed historical range.

March 10: After a full day snorkeling and photographing Midway's fantastic birdlife, I retreated to my room at Charlie Barracks Hotel, where visitors are housed on Sand Island. The evening's quiet was shattered, however, when I received an urgent knock on the door. "There's been a huge earthquake in Japan, and we're in the tsunami's path," a refuge worker told me. "Grab your passport and essentials. Go to the third floor and wait for instructions."

The refuge's entire human population—81 employees and guests—converged into a few rooms on the barracks' upper floor. As the evening wore on, we alternately gasped at TV scenes of devastation in Japan and peered out windows, wondering what was in store. At 11:36 p.m., the moment predicted by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, a reading from the tide gauge in Midway's harbor spiked as the first wave reached the atoll. All of us wondered: Would the refuge be spared?

March 11-12: Daylight revealed the answer. The third-highest tsunami in Midway's recorded history had struck the refuge. A 4.9-foot wave inundated all of Spit Island, 60 percent of Eastern and 20 percent of Sand.

Refuge reconnaissance teams reported back that thousands of Bonin petrels were entombed in collapsed nest burrows. Full-grown albatrosses were blindsided, their elegant wings entangled in branches and debris. Fluffy albatross chicks—flightless until summer—were lifted from nests and tumbled by rushing water (trapped Laysan albatross chick, left). Refuge biologist Pete Leary (shown at top with adult Laysan albatross) counted only 4 albatross chicks left on Spit, previously crowded with nearly 1,500 nests. In the lagoon, a thousand adult petrels and albatrosses floundered. Rescuers in small boats began ferrying as many birds as possible to shore. Along with other visitors, I joined the recovery efforts on Sand Island, crawling under naupaka shrubs to free flip-flopped petrels and albatrosses.

The following day, I returned to Eastern Island—nearly unrecognizable with massive debris piles containing plastic trash and beached fish—and began searching for the twitch of a wing, leg or bill. Many buried chicks, and some adults, were simply stuck. Biting hands that freed them, they waddled away to preen once released. But my fellow rescuers and I also encountered numbing loss. Refuge officials later estimated that deaths on all three islands from the tsunami and two earlier winter storms included 2,000 adult and sub-adult albatrosses as well as 110,000 Laysan albatross chicks and eggs. The impact on the Laysan duck population remains unknown.

March 13-31: As rescue and reconnaissance efforts continued, the good news included an endangered Hawaiian monk seal disentangled from netting, five threatened green sea turtles hand-carried to sea, five Laysan ducks successfully treated for botulism and released, scores of petrels liberated from soggy burrows and hundreds of albatrosses released from debris-pile prisons.

Overall, the refuge's seabird Class of 2011 (which will be censused five to seven years from now when chicks reach reproductive age) is expected to be smaller than preceding years, but Midway's wildlife escaped total devastation. The biggest lingering question: Will parents returning from sea be able to find their chicks in this jumbled landscape?

In the case of one very important chick, a short-tailed albatross, the answer turned out to be yes. Sixty years ago, this species was feared to be extinct after feather hunting eliminated 5 million adults from their primary breeding ground on Japan's Torishima Island. Careful management has since increased the bird's population from 50 to about 2,400. Two months before Japan's earthquake, a chick hatched from a short-tailed albatross nest on Eastern Island—making it the first documented chick of the species to hatch outside Japan in modern history. After surviving a wild wave ride, that chick greeted its parents when they returned to Midway after the tsunami.

Connie Toops is producing a guidebook for Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Visit her website to see more of her photos.


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