Maintaining Traditions

Maintaining Traditions

I don’t have many rituals, but one I follow faithfully whenever I visit Midway Atoll is to watch the sun set from North Beach. On this, my eighth visit to Midway, I was not about to break from tradition. The stop at Midway is always met with great excitement and anticipation among the ship’s scientists and crew. Unlike at any other island, the ship pulls in to dock at Midway, allowing all aboard to set foot on dry land for a couple of days. For many on the ship, this is an opportunity to wander around and see the sites on this historic island (and also to partake of certain beverages that are not allowed to be consumed aboard the NOAA ship…).

The conditions are perfect as the Hi’ialakai glides into the channel at Midway Atoll.

My reason for being excited about the Midway stop is much more straightforward: of all the tropical islands I’ve visited around the world, Midway is my favorite. I’m not sure exactly why I’m so fond of this place. Part of it involves the many wonderful memories I have from earlier visits (going back to 1989). Part of it has to do with how many sharks we routinely see on dives. But mostly it’s the ambiance of the place. Monk seals and sea turtles are commonplace. The beaches are the cleanest, finest, whitest sand I’ve ever seen anywhere, and are almost always devoid of human footprints. Most of the land is covered in grass, with scattered pine trees. The climate is perfect: bright sun, cool air, and a light breeze. And of course, there is a rich history (particularly involving World War II). My annual tradition on my favorite island is to trek to my favorite spot (North Beach) at my favorite time of day (sunset), and spend some time reflecting on many things (friends near, far, and gone; how this beach was different a million years ago; how it was the same; etc.)

A Hawaiian Monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi) swims near North Beach, Midway Atoll, at sunset.

And, of course, there is the diving. Of our two days at Midway, only one involved a deep dive. The morning team explored an isolated reef out in the sand at a depth of about 180 feet (54 m). Based on the bathymetry data (which showed two large distinct structures), we had assumed it was either a wreck or a garbage dump, so we’d planned on investigating both features with the two dive teams for documentation purposes. However, after the morning team confirmed one of the two features to be a raised limestone reef, the afternoon team (which included me) decided to try a different, deeper spot (300 ft/90 m), which was closer to the harbor channel.

The Hawaiian Yellow Anthias (Odontanthias fuscipinnis) hovers near the reef at a depth of 300 feet (90 m) off Midway Atoll.

We were not disappointed! We saw many of the “usual suspects” — the fishes that live much deeper in the main Hawaiian Islands but are often found in shallower water here in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (such as the Hawaiian Yellow Anthias, Odontanthias fuscipinnis). But we also saw some new things. For example, we have been seeing a wrasse in the genus Suezichthys on many of our dives. It is similar to a species known as S. arquatus that is found in in the western Pacific from Japan down to Australia, but the ones we’ve been seeing here are different, so we’re not entirely sure it’s that species.

Two different species of wrasses in the genus Suezichthys (S. notatus above, and an unidentified species below) both swim side-by-side at 300 feet (90 m) off Midway Atoll.

Another unusual thing we saw were reddish brown anemones unlike we’ve anything we’ve ever seen in Hawaii. They were about 6-7 inches (~15-20 centimeters) in diameter and there were many of them anchored to rocks where the rock meets the sand.

Many of these unidentified sea anemones were scattered on the bottom at 300 feet (90 m) off Midway Atoll.

The next day we stayed on shore, and spent a little time exploring. Brian Greene and I rode bikes around the island to see what we could find. At this time of year, thousands of Laysan albatross have come here to give birth to and raise their young. Almost every patch of land on the island is covered with large brown Albatross chicks, which seem largely oblivious to our presence.

Hundreds of thousands of Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) chicks are born each year at Midway Atoll.

One of our quests was to locate the old hyperbaric chamber on the island. After a while of exploring, I decided to go for a snorkel under the Midway pier with the 360-degree GoPro ball, while Brian continued his quest. He eventually found the chamber and took some pictures; after many years of dormancy, it’s clear the chamber will need some significant work before it’s ready to treat divers again.

The old recompression chamber at Midway Atoll.

As fun and interesting as the diving and the exploring were, however, the highlight of my visit to Midway this year was, as always, the peace and serenity of contemplating things large and small while the sun slowly sinks into the sea. It was a poignant moment, and one that will stay with me for a long time. Another poignant tradition was fulfilled during our visit to Midway this year. This one is maintained by Keolohilani (“Keo”) Lopes, who has joined us on several of these expeditions over the years as a trusty (and very trustworthy) safety diver. It began in 2010 when Keo, along with Kevin Flanagan, Donna Litcome, Jeff Kuwabara, and John Coney, went for a dive in Honaunau, Hawai’i at the end of that year’s QUEST Field Program (part of the Univeristy of Hawaii at Hilo’s Marine Options Program). Keo found a little plastic doll in the parking lot just before they got in the water, and it joined them on the dive. Kevin Flanagan insisted on naming him “Peppetto Sanchez”, and the name stuck. Sadly, Kevin passed away in 2012, but his memory lives on in our hearts and in the scientific diving community. Peppetto’s home is atop the Kevin Flanagan Award trophy that is given each year to the outstanding first-year QUEST student. But each year he journeys from this trophy home up to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for a month of adventures with us on the NOAA deep diving cruise. This year, he was part of the morning deep dive team at Midway, and managed to ride a Coelacanth! Through Peppetto, Kevin’s spirit continues to explore the sea along with all of us.

Peppetto Sanchez rides a Coelacanth 200 feet (60 m) down off Midway Atoll.