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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

To Midway and Back: An Email Interview with Barbara DiBernard

Beach, Midway atoll.

In an earlier post, we took an imagined journey to the islands of the Northwestern Hawaiian atoll, following the life of the Laysan albatross and the troubles this beautiful bird now faces due to plastic pollution in the North Pacific Gyre.

Today we would like to welcome Barbara DiBernard, professor of English and of women's studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Barbara has participated in several study tours to environmentally sensitive areas, volunteering in efforts to protect endangered species, and recording her observations in award-winning photographs. Having recently returned from Midway Atoll in the Hawaiian Archipelago, where she worked to preserve albatross populations, Barbara has kindly consented to share with us her photographs and reflections on her experience, as well as on continued efforts to ensure the albatross's survival.

All photographs by Barbara DiBernard.

RLM: Could you convey to us a few general impressions of Midway Island? What do you see on arriving at the airport? Where on the island did you stay? Are there many remnants of Midway's naval history, e.g. WWII-era military bases? How many people, if any, live permanently on Midway?

BDB: As the plane approaches the runway on Sand Island, Midway Atoll, at 9 p.m., the landing lights illuminate thousands of albatross lined up on each side and as far as we can see. Everyone aboard the 19-seater charter plane gasps. Of course we expected to see albatross; that’s why we came, but the reality of them and sheer numbers are overwhelming. This atoll belongs to the birds, particularly the Laysan albatross, and we are privileged to be able to spend a week with them.

Laysan Albatross adults and chicks in varying degrees of maturation.

Midway Atoll, 1250 miles west-northwest of Honolulu, is part of the leeward chain of the Hawaiian archipelago. The atoll consists of a circular coral reef approximately 5 miles in diameter inside of which is a shallow white sand lagoon and 3 islands. Midway Atoll, the other Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the ocean around them were declared the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2006, forming the largest protected marine area in the world. This vast, remote, and largely uninhabited marine region encompasses approximately 139,793 square miles (362,061 square kilometers) of Pacific Ocean in the northwestern extent of the Hawaiian Archipelago.

“The name Papahanaumokuakea comes from an ancient Hawaiian tradition concerning the genealogy and formation of the Hawaiian Islands...Papahanaumoku is a mother figure personified by the earth and Wakea is a father figure personified in the expansive sky...

Endangered Laysan duck.

thus the naming of the monument is to honor and preserve these names, to strengthen Hawaii’s cultural foundation and to ground Hawaiians to an important part of their history” (informational handout). Midway is also a National Wildlife Refuge and is designated as the Battle of Midway National Memorial. Because of these designations, several agencies are charged with the preservation of the historical sites as well as the reef, the islands, and their flora and fauna. For more information, you can go to www.hawaiireef.noaa.gov or www.fws.gov/pacificislands. Currently the Monument Draft Management Plan is on these sites, laying out several options for how the Monument should be maintained over the next few years.

Laysan albatross

Only one of the islands within Midway Atoll is inhabited. About 50 people live on Sand Island at this time, including the Monument director, Fish & Wildlife staff, biologists, people there on special projects (such as invasive plants specialists, who were there during our time on the island), and those who care for the grounds and buildings and do the cooking for visitors and staff. In addition, a few volunteers are on the island at any given time. They come for a few weeks or month at a time to help with research and special projects. The Oceanic Society (www.oceanic-society.org), with whom I traveled, has several 1-week trips a year on which 15 visitors at a time can participate in a Natural History Tour.

Visitors stay in “Charlie Barracks,” refurbished barracks from the time when the atoll was a navy base. The rooms are comfortable, the lobby of the building has a computer with internet capabilities, and everyone eats together at the Clipper House restaurant, right on the beach. There are no cars or trucks on Midway. Staff and visitors travel in golf carts, ride old fat-tire bikes, or walk. Cell phones don’t work on Midway. Everyone leaves their rooms unlocked, and you can drop your backpack or other belongings anywhere and know they will be there when you return. I found the lack of vehicles, the lack of cell phones, the safety, and the sense of community among the most positive aspects of being on Midway.

There are remnants of Midway’s military history on the atoll and the designation Battle of Midway National Memorial mandates that the history be preserved. While it has not been feasible to preserve everything, some sites are being maintained. Among them are the “bombproof” command/communications building into which a Japanese bomb was deflected on December 7, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Lt. George H. Cannon died after refusing medical attention until he was sure communications were restored, and received the first Medal of Honor given to a U.S. marine in WWII.

Eastern Island.

You can also see shrapnel holes in metal beams of the old seaplane hangar that were made by Japanese shells during the Battle of Midway in June 1942. A pillbox on one of the beaches has been maintained as well. The current operating airplane hangar has a small historical exhibit, and plans call for this to be expanded and moved to a new location in the future. One of the interesting things about Midway is this contrast between the natural and human ecologies. You can be biking through a remote area of the island deeply involved in watching the albatross when you come upon an old artillery bunker, for example.

RLM: Describe for us the variety of wildlife you saw. It appears from your beautiful photos that the birds and other animals are almost completely unafraid of human presence. Is this a correct impression, and if not, how did you manage to get such stunning close-up shots? What did you observe of the life-patterns of animals on the island?

Laysan and black-footed albatross.

BDB: Seventeen seabird species for a total of about 2 million nest on Midway Atoll each year. The most recent population counts include 487,524 nesting pairs of Laysan albatross, 24,085 pairs of black-footed albatross, 32,066 pairs of bonin petrels, 5,000 pairs of red-tailed tropicbirds, 53 pairs of red-footed boobies, 87 pairs of great frigatebird, 6,000 pairs of black noddy, 1,000 pairs of brown noddy, 7500 pairs of fairy terns, 1000 pairs of wedge-tailed shearwaters, 400 pairs of gray-backed terns, and 45,000 pairs of sooty terns. As I mentioned above, the atoll measures approximately 5 miles in diameter. Within it, Sand Island is 1.8 miles long by 1.2 miles wide or about 1200 acres; Eastern Island consists of 334 acres, and Spit Island consists of only 6 acres. Obviously the bird population is very dense.

Sub-adult Laysans dancing.

Certainly on Sand Island, the Laysan albatross are the most overwhelming feature. At the time we were there, albatross chicks were sitting on their nests waiting to be fed about once a week by their parents, who alternate feedings. They were 2-4 weeks from fledging. Everywhere you looked were albatross chicks. In many areas, there was a chick about every 3 feet. At this age, some chicks are beginning to investigate their surroundings a bit, and often roads are impassable without moving several chicks before driving a golf cart through. Chicks are also on the sidewalks in front of buildings, taking shelter from the sun next to bike racks, and on the boardwalk leading to the restaurant. We saw many adults feeding their chicks, regurgitating the oil that they make of the fish and squid they consume while out at sea. There were also hundreds of sub-adult Laysan albatross dancing to find a life-long mate. They perform an intricate series of steps, bows, feather preening, sky-pointing, and bill clapping, accompanied by clicks, calls, and moos. The grouping of dancers was very fluid. At times 1 or 2 albatross would join 2 who were dancing, then one of the original dancers would wander off and start dancing with another bird, etc.

Chick on sidewalk, feet raised for thermal regulation.

Adult Laysan feeding its chick.

Pair of adult Laysan albatross.

Fairy tern.

Fairy terns are beautiful all-white birds. They nest on bare branches, or at times on top of bike racks, roofs, or air conditioners. Their chicks were just starting to hatch (our guide told us they were voted “cutest chicks on the island”), and it was always a delight to find one perched on a tree branch, on the roof of the porch of the barracks, or, in one case, next to a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in an outdoor shrine. Bonin petrels nest underground. Their population had been almost decimated by the rats brought in by ships. However, with the total eradication of the rats a few years ago, their population has rebounded. One reason to stay on the paths was to avoid crashing through a petrel burrow. If you did, you had to instantly drop to your knees and dig until you opened up the burrow in both directions so a chick would not be trapped.

Fairy tern with fish to feed its chick.

Fairy tern chick.

Laysan chick and bonin petrel chick.

Yes, it’s true that many of the birds are unafraid of human presence, as in the Galapagos. That is one of the most amazing aspects of being on Midway. I’m a birdwatcher at home, so I am aware of how difficult it is to get close to birds and how lucky one is to get a good glimpse through binoculars. On Midway, you can sit in a field of albatross only a few feet away from the closest bird and observe for hours at a time with no sign of disturbance. Fairy terns are very curious and would often flutter right above our heads, and red-tailed tropicbirds, even those sitting on nests, would let us approach within 3 feet.

RLM: What was a typical day like for you and other volunteers in your program? How many people were in your group? What were the daily activities and the overall goals of the stay?

Red-tailed tropicbird.

BDB: There were 15 people in our group. The goals of Oceanic’s Natural History tour were to learn about the natural and human history of the Atoll; to learn about the wildlife, especially the albatross, but also other seabirds, spinner dolphins, green sea turtles, and endangered Hawaiian monk seals; to learn about and have a chance to experience the healthy coral reef and the fish and other creatures who live there; and to gain an environmental consciousness about the threats to the wildlife who nest on or use the atoll. I believe that the privilege of visiting Midway also charges each of us to help educate others about the need to preserve the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the creatures that live there.

Green sea turtle, fairy tern, and Hawaiian monk seal.

We would usually do a natural history excursion in the morning, with some of us traveling by golf cart and others by bike. Our naturalist and a Fish & Wildlife ranger would take us to part of the island to observe a particular species and educate us about it. We always had time for silent observation as well, just “being there.” After lunch we would have another excursion, then some free time to wander, swim, and take pictures. Most of us would gather at the beach to watch the sun set, and then our naturalist gave talks illustrated with slides of his own photographs. We had a talk on Laysan albatross, on the other seabirds, on the Hawaiian monk seal, and on fishes of the reef. We had 2 snorkeling excursions on the outer reef as well.

Red-footed booby.

Great frigatebird.

RLM: Tell us about your consciousness of the presence of plastic pollution. Is there plastic debris on the island itself, or mostly at sea where the albatross feed? What did you observe about the threats faced by albatross, and by other wildlife on the island?

Marine debris, Sand Island.

Fishing nets, Sand Island.

BDB: There is a huge pile of marine debris on Sand Island. One of our most memorable excursions and talks was at this pile. It is shocking to see the things that have washed up on Midway Atoll and/or have been pulled off the reef. Of course there is a great deal of fishing line, netting, rope, etc. Seals, dolphins, and turtles are all at risk of drowning from being caught in these. But we also observed a computer monitor, tires, laundry baskets, buoys, plastic bottles, glass bottles, plastic toy figures, sunglasses, “disposable” cigarette lighters, and many other kinds of debris. Our naturalist emphasized that we should be aware of what happens to our garbage. Many garbage dumps are placed so that in bad storms they are overwhelmed and the debris ends up in the ocean. Other debris comes from fishing boats.

While we were on Midway, we helped remove an estimated 900 lbs. of rope and netting which was caught on the rocks and would almost surely be washed back out into the lagoon in a bad storm. Fortunately, a Coast Guard cutter visited Midway while we were there and was able to take this rope and netting as well as about half of the other debris off the island. Getting debris or even recyclables taken away is a significant logistical problem on Midway. Not many boats visit, and few of the ones that do have the capacity to carry a significant amount of marine debris.

Removing ropes and nets.

Sand Island has much less plastic debris throughout than when I last visited in 2000. I imagine that Midway’s inclusion in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and the plan to make Midway the educational site for visitors within the Monument led to this change. In 2000, the island was littered with plastic and other debris, the most noticeable being cigarette lighters. I learned then that virtually every lighter of the hundreds of thousands collected there had been brought to the island by an albatross, picked up inadvertently while feeding and often regurgitated into a chick’s body. The lighters on the island were the result of chicks expelling them in boluses or from the carcasses of chicks or adults who died from ingestion of debris. As you pointed out in your blog, the problem is with the “seafaring junkyard of plastic waste” in the North Pacific Gyre.

Plastic fragments from stomach of dead albatross chick.

RLM: You mentioned you have been to Midway on three different occasions. Have you observed changes, positive or negative, over the course of these visits, to the plastic situation or to other aspects of the island's ecology?

BDB: As I mentioned above, Sand Island is cleaner than when I visited in 1999 and 2000. However, the amount of debris getting caught on the surrounding coral reef or washed into the lagoon has not lessened. No matter how much debris humans pick up and dispose of on Midway, albatross will continue to ingest plastic while feeding and turtles, dolphins, and Hawaiian monk seals will continue to get caught in nets and ropes. While everyone is excited because endangered Hawaiian monk seals (population approximately 1100) have started pupping on Midway again, the mortality rate of pups in a recent year was 100%. Some of them must get drowned in marine debris, others may not get adequate nourishment from their mothers, and others may not be able to find adequate food on their own when they are weaned.

Midway is in a state of transition. With its designation as part of a Marine National Monument, in addition to its previous designations as a Wildlife Refuge and the Battle of Midway National Memorial, comes change. I read through the parts of the Monument Draft Management Plan that deal with Midway, and significant positive changes should be coming within the next 10 years, including making the atoll as close to energy independent as possible. In addition, old buildings that are a threat to the wildlife, such as those with lead paint (curious chicks often nibble at it and biologists have documented cases of chick carcasses with lethal levels of lead), will be destroyed and green buildings will be constructed.

RLM: What is your sense of Midway's future, particularly with regard to plastic pollution? Are there feasible ways for us to clean up the plastic already in the North Pacific Gyre or on Midway? If we can't clean up what's already there, how can we control the situation and most effectively safeguard the future of albatross and other animals?

BDB: This is for people more knowledgeable than I! Obviously, we have to reduce the amount of plastics we use, and we have to dispose of garbage more carefully. I’m a teacher, so I do believe in the value of education.

Plastic from albatross carcass.

When I returned from Midway in 2000 I gave a slide show to local groups in which I talked about the mortality of albatross from eating or being fed plastic. As part of my talk, I passed around a basket which contained plastic from one albatross carcass—bottle caps, toy figures, 2 lighters, a toothbrush handle, a belt buckle, unidentified pieces of plastic, some with sharp edges. Someone who heard one of my talks invited me to talk to her college class 2 years later and told me that the basket of plastic had made such an impression on her that she had asked herself of everything she bought since, “Could this hurt an albatross?”

I do believe in the ability of human beings to change. My partner and I were remarking yesterday that when we were growing up and well into our adulthood, the right of people to smoke anywhere was unquestioned. Neither of us could have foreseen the change that has come about in the U.S. in regard to smoking. And as author and transgender activist Leslie Feinberg said in an interview, in the repressive and homophobic 1950s, she could never have imagined that the ‘60s were right around the corner.

Still, the problems are massive. As Charles Moore wrote in his article “Trashed,” “Entanglement and indigestion, however, are not the worst problems caused by the ubiquitous plastic pollution...Plastic polymers, it turns out, are sponges for DDT, PCBs, and other oily pollutants...Plastic resin pellets concentrate such poisons to levels as high as a million times their concentrations in the water as free-floating substances...After [jellies and salps] ingest the toxins, they are eaten in turn by fish, and so the poisons pass into the food web that leads, in some cases, to human beings.”

RLM: Could you tell us a bit about what first inspired you to join volunteer efforts helping to preserve endangered species? What are some of the rewards and challenges of taking such a journey?

Red-footed booby and chick.

BDB: I’ve always had a deep connection with the earth and its non-human creatures. Growing up, I spent most of my time in the woods around our house. When I need sustenance, I still lie on the ground and feel strength and spirit flow into me. I never questioned that everything is connected, that I am part of a web that includes all animals, plants, people, and the earth and oceans. When I first learned about service trips, that I could contribute in a small way to ongoing research that would help preserve threatened and endangered animals, it seemed an ideal way to put my beliefs into practice.

I have been fortunate enough to participate in research on spinner dolphins and Laysan albatross on Midway; bottlenose dolphins, coral reefs, and American crocodiles in Belize, and leatherback sea turtles in Trinidad.

Sooty terns.

Through these expeditions, I have experienced moments of “grounded transcendence,” when I felt part of a web of life and beyond my ego. For me, these moments have their own value; they don’t need to lead to anything else.

However, I also believe in the value of citizen participation in science. For me to add a small bit to the data about leatherback turtle nesting, to the lives of crocodiles in Belize, or to the mortality of Laysan albatross on Midway is rewarding. Working with scientists has also enriched my life generally as well as my profession as a literature teacher.

RLM: What would be your advice for someone interested in taking action on the problem of plastic pollution in the North Pacific Gyre and the Northwestern Hawaiian atoll? Can anyone participate in the type of program you did? If we can't actually make a trip to one of the Northwest Hawaiian islands, can we still take actions to protect the wildlife vulnerable to plastic pollution? And if we do go on a volunteer trip, how can we best extend our positive effects even after returning home?

BDB: Education, education, education! Your blog is a good example. Being aware of the huge area of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre, as well as its implications for albatross, sea creatures, and humans has to be the first step. Noticing what plastics we use, whether we can reduce them, and making sure they are disposed of responsibly, is important too. Just within the last month, a column from a free-lance writer about the plastic in the North Pacific Gyre was printed in the Lincoln, NE newspaper. This tells me that word is getting out, that this is a problem that bears on all of our lives.

Great frigatebird and chick.

Anyone with the physical capabilities can participate in Oceanic’s natural history tours of Midway or other places. There are also other organizations, such as Earth Watch, the Sierra Club, Elder Hostel, and others that sponsor study tours and service trips on environmental/ecological topics. I encourage everyone who is interested to join one of these. I know that my knowledge of sea birds, dolphins, sea turtles, crocodiles, and coral reefs is more alive for me because I have been able to take these trips. As I said above, I also consider it my responsibility to talk to whoever will listen when I return!

Thanks for asking me to do this interview!

Laysan albatross in flight.


  1. Thank you for a very enlightening interview! We are inspired to learn more and do more to lessen the problem of refuse in our world at large and in the Pacific Gyre in particular.

  2. Thank *you* for reading and commenting, Marbar!

  3. Thank you,Its very sad how all those sweet baby albatross' were dead becasue of our rubbish.From now on i'm going to be more echo frindly !!

  4. Rachel

    Your green initiative is really great. Is your research in similar area or maths, just curious

    About the fennel, you don't really need to roast, just ground ones lend a nice flavor too

  5. Thanks, Sandeepa! I'm really happy you like the green initiative...because of my new job (postdoc) I haven't found time to post for quite a while, but I want to again. As to my research, no, nothing similar, it's in mathematical physics, quantum gravity to be precise (there are some nice books on this subject by Lee Smolin).

    Thanks too for the advice on fennel seeds. :-)

  6. Rachel

    I remember long back you had asked about the Egg Roll with Malaysian paratha, I posted it this week. Check if you like it. How is everything else ? Have a great year ahead