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March 25, 2010 11:52 AM Pacific (GMT -8)

Midway Atoll
by Ken Kurtis

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 is 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.

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 percent assured 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 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 (240 km) away, there are still plenty of things to remind you what took place almost 50 years ago. Midway is one of those rare destinations that offers 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; 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 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 seen 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 five or six dives a day, be aware, 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 is 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 110ft / 33m 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 you don't have much time at this depth.

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 offers 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 is a fabulous eco-adventure when you include diving, birding and history. And because it's a place few divers have explored, it also gives you some unique bragging rights for the evenings you trade tales with fellow scuba addicts. Would I go back again? You betcha. Maybe I'll see you there!

Note: After serving as a U.S. naval base for five decades, Midway's three tiny islands are now a National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Flight times for the 3-hour trip from Honolulu (1250mi / 2000km to the southwest) vary based on bird activity. Only about 150 people live on Midway and no more than 100 visitors are allowed at any one time. Besides fish and seabirds (including the highly endangered short-tailed albatross, or golden gooney), Midway boasts green sea turtles, a resident herd of spinner dolphins, and the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

Click here for detailed information in the eScuba destinations directory on Midway's dive conditions, marine life and more.

Click here to review the eScuba directory listing for Midway's only dive operator.

Commercial website offering information about Midway Island
Fish and Wildlife's site on Midway as a National Wildlife Refuge
Oceanic Society, which organizes expeditions to study Midway's dolphins and seabirds
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