- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

MIDWAY ATOLL — More than a thousand miles from the closest outpost of civilization, the pale sands of Midway Atoll peek out above the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean like an oasis.

Midway’s sublime natural beauty and rich history as the site of a critical World War II battle make it an attractive spot to visit.

However, it’s also a place you can’t reach easily from anywhere unless you’re a really plucky traveler.

If you don’t own a boat or plane for the 1,200-mile journey from Honolulu, the main options for private travel to the distant atoll can be daunting: either board a cruise from Asia, hitch a ride with one of a handful of a resident government workers or volunteer for three months of environmental duty.

Some would-be Pacific island hoppers, especially war buffs and those who once called Midway home, think the historic U.S. possession warrants easier access. Between 1997 and 2001, the atoll received 1,500 to 2,000 tourists and other visitors each year.

Public flights to Midway, which is a National Wildlife Refuge, ended in 2002, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s sole tourist operator pulled out, citing its difficulty making a profit on trips to the remote islands. The Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the island.

One of the more luxurious but roundabout options for getting to Midway is to book passage on one of up to four cruise ships that anchor outside the atoll each year and ferry passengers across the turquoise water of the five-mile-wide atoll to Sand Island.

One cruise ship scheduled to stop at Midway this year is the Saga Ruby, operated by the United Kingdom-based Saga Holidays company. The ship departs Tianjin Xingang, China, on March 5, bound for Southampton, England, with a stop at Midway on its way to Hawaii.

Those who boat ashore may be treated to a performance by the atoll’s 200 or so spinner dolphins, named for their propensity for spinning leaps out of the water. Cheers from an audience seem to send them into even more impressive acrobatics.

On land, visitors will be greeted by members of the world’s largest colony of Laysan albatrosses — about 400,000 nesting pairs — and taken on a four- to six-hour tour of the atoll’s main island.

Japanese destroyers shelled the U.S. military base at Midway on the same day Pearl Harbor was bombed, December 7, 1941. The area is better known for the Battle of Midway, which began June 3, 1942, with an attempt by Japanese fighter pilots to destroy U.S. forces at the atoll. The Americans successfully counterattacked in a harrowing three-day fight.

For the less history-minded, only one beach is open to visitors. The others are reserved for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. You might find it tough to complain, though. Gleaming white, gorgeous and empty, the beach on the island’s northern side makes Oahu’s famed Lanikai Beach look like a Saturday in July at Coney Island.

Taking a cruise to Midway could inspire you to take on another means of getting to the island — volunteering. That’s how Eldridge and Thelma Park got here.

The retired couple from Aiea, Hawaii, have been busy in the refuge’s greenhouse nurturing native bunch grass, which is being used to restore the natural ecosystem of the atoll’s Eastern Island.

“It’s nice, slow. You can get away from the city for a while,” says Mr. Park, a 48-year veteran of the U.S. Postal Service. “I miss the grandchildren, though.”

Volunteers are expected to stay on the island at least three months, which can be a bit tough for those who require urban comforts or a lot of social interaction. Midway hosts about 40 volunteers throughout the year.

With only about four federal employees and fewer than 50 additional staff members, such as cooks and plumbers, it makes for a tight group.

Although selection is weighted toward those with a background in biology, it is not necessary. “Basically, if you’re willing to do hard work and do what we want, that’s usually enough,” says Ken Foote, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman.

The tasks include keeping tabs on the health of albatross pairs, which mate for life, and ripping the life out of the scourge of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the cute but invasive flower verbesina.

Some would-be Midway visitors say there should be more direct and less arduous travel options. Members of groups such as Supporters and Veterans of Midway Island say the Fish and Wildlife Service is thwarting efforts to bring back regular flights in favor of protecting wildlife.

“It’s the environmentalists against the Navy veterans. And right now the Fish and Wildlife Service has all the cards in their hand and the veterans have nothing,” says Gary Randall of Brightwood, Ore., who was stationed on Midway in his late teens, from 1977 to 1979.

Mr. Randall maintains an impressive Web site for the group, which has 1,500 people on its mailing list.

It may take a year before there’s a regularly scheduled service to Midway again, but the Fish and Wildlife Service is working to get it going, says Barbara Maxfield, chief of Pacific Islands visitor services for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The remoteness of the location complicates the effort. “We very much want to share this with the American public. It’s just finding a way to do it in a cost-effective manner,” she says.

“When we tell the public that it may cost $1,200 to come out here, can they afford that? We know a lot of people can’t,” she says.

While Midway “will never be the Disneyland of the Pacific,” visitors are always welcome, says refuge manager Barry Christenson. The half-dozen sailors who stop by each year can look forward to an invitation to the refuge staff’s own bowling alley.

“Because it’s kind of a rare event, it’s actually kind of fun to have visitors,” Mr. Christenson says.

• • •

The Saga Ruby departs Tianjin Xingang, China, March 5 for Southampton, England, stopping at Midway Atoll. For details, visit www.sagacruisingusa.com or call 800/343-0273.

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge: How to volunteer, World War II history and background on the atoll’s wildlife at www.fws.gov/midway

Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve: hawaiireef.noaa.gov

Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge: www.fws.gov/pacificislands/wnwr/pnorthwestnwr.html


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