Sharks. That's what I'm here for, and within 5 minutes of hitting the water I see my first one. It's small, about 3 feet long, a puppy dog of a Galapagos, but it gets up close and personal and I happily snap photos. I enjoy its closeness and willingness to share my space as I inspect it carefully, and I ponder the fact that without any divers in the frame, no one will be able to tell if it was 3 feet or 10 feet long anyway. Finally I turn away and continue gazing out into the blue with more and bigger sharks on the brain, as the Galapagos trails along on my fins.
I have come to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to this speck of an island 1100 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands, because somewhere along the line I became obsessed with sharks. What started out as a morbid fear, nurtured and fed by movies and bad journalism, at some point between seeing my first and third shark, as a scuba diver became a crush of mythic teenage proportion. I buy books on sharks, I doodle sharks, I compose lists of species of sharks, I research places to visit to maximize the likelihood of seeing sharks, I sleep and shower with visions of shadows and outlines almost just beyond visibility and silhouettes of 15 foot striped predators dancing on the surface above me. Midway Atoll has drawn me here with its promise of sharks, and it does not disappoint.
The most remote coral atoll on the face of the earth, Midway was the site of a famous 1942 land and sea battle between the Japanese and the U.S as well as an important naval air facility during the Korean War, the Cold War and the Vietnam War. While designated a national wildlife refuge in 1988, it wasn't until the naval air facility closed in 1993 that oversight of the atoll was transferred from the U.S Navy to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Official jurisdiction however would not be transferred until President Clinton signed an Executive Order declaring such in 1996. After years of cleanup, Midway was opened to the public in 1997 as a joint venture between the Fish and Wildlife service and the privately owned Midway Phoenix Corporation, which manages the public use program.
The refuge is known primarily for its huge population of Laysan Albatross, also affectionately known as gooney birds. Fledgling albatross numbering nearly a million blanket this speck of sand and rock, spilling over onto the runway, sidewalks, roads, beaches, and in every nook and cranny. Birdwatchers flock here, pun intended, to goggle at this largest of Albatross colonies as well as at the many other species of birds that inhabit the atoll. In a way, I too am here for the birds.
Fledging goonies take some time figuring out how to fly. They're a riot to watch as they spend a few days just holding out their wings, apparently hoping for something magical to happen, then taking short hops into the air, and finally running and flapping maniacally as they briefly achieve airborne status. Towards the beginning of July, most of the adults have left their chicks and if they're going to eat, the goonies soon realize that they need to figure things out on their own, and quick. As they gain some confidence, they begin lining up on the beach and testing first flights. Fledging goonies crash into the water like kids cannonballing into the lake in summertime, and the result is a tiger shark smorgasbord. From the boats carrying student researchers, birdwatchers, fishers, film crews, and scuba divers, a kind of split cheering section materializes as a thick dark shape is spotted slicing through the water towards a hapless gooney. I cheer for the sharks every time, unapologetic. It's not as unfair a fight as you might imagine. Either too sated by the abundance of gooney McNuggets, or confused by the clouds of feathers, even the successful strikes by the tigers usually take several tries. This seems to comfort those contemplating snorkeling later in the week....
The first day of diving we see no tiger sharks, but our appetites are whetted by the stories of others. Our first dive is done at a spot called Phoenix. I'm with the first group in the water, and after my initial fascination with the aforementioned Galapagos shark, I notice our leader Dan is pointing out a variety of rare and fabulous fish. Whiskered boarfish, Hawaiian morwongs and the incredibly lovely and rare masked angelfish are some of the highlights. Large hapu'u, or grouper, kiss our cameras and ogle us through our masks. Then we're visited by more Galapagos sharks and I forget about looking down. This is to become a recurrent theme. We see an eagle ray at the next site, and I am astounded by its size. Black jacks cruise under a ledge and there are more Galapagos sharks, as there will be on 16 of our 17 dives. I notice that there are larger Galapagos cruising further away. We will see several more in the next week in the 5-8 foot range, but unlike the 3-4 foot sharks, the big ones keep their distance.
The next morning we eagerly board the Sea Angel. A beautiful 48-foot boat with a head and plenty of room for our group of 14 divers, the Sea Angel is quite comfortable even when we experienced less than ideal conditions. We spot several tiger sharks from the boat, hunting for gooney goodies, and the mood soars. Our two morning dives are some of the best we'll have all week, at spots called Chromis Corridor and Fish Hole. There are clouds of fish, Galapagos circle above and around us, we see spotted and barred knifejaws, two spotted snake eels, another eagle ray, more masked angels, and Dan points out a rare orange cod in a crack. The underwater topography is out of a fantasy novel with canyons, arches, holes and small caves and caverns. We break for lunch and are back out on the boat again, and on this dive, I will spot my first tiger shark of the week underwater. He is gone almost as fast as I register his presence, and the divers behind me are oblivious to my underwater hoots, fascinated by a huge school of feeding chubs. I'm dejected by their obvious skepticism when I tell them, and the experience loses some of its luster for me when I fail to arouse any camaraderie from them. I resolve to celebrate with each diver who spots his own tiger shark even if I don't see it. I console myself knowing that I'll replay this moment when I close my eyes that night, which I do, and fall asleep with a smile on my face.
Our group dives three times each day, and the diving is more difficult than we had expected. The sites are rife with current, and the water is often very cold, dipping into the low 70s and even below on occasion. Unfortunately the diving is done from moorings, which means that either on the way out or back you're kicking into a nasty current much of the time. Air goes faster here than most of us are accustomed to. We all dream of drift dives in this current and when we finally convince them to do one, it's on the condition that we'll be dropped outside the channel and then the boat will go ahead of us to an existing mooring. As a result, if the current is running against us, we'll be doing a "drift" right into it. And that's exactly what happens.
Throughout the week there continues to be sightings of tiger sharks, frequently from the boat, including a very large one that passes right under us. Each day at least a few members of the group spot a tiger while diving, usually at our safety stop. I cheer for each diver who swims by and flashes a T sign, eyes as big as their dive lights. I often happily hang on the line for 10 or 15 minutes, even though we will do no decompression diving all week, hoping for another sighting. Once we see a sun-dappled tiger sinuously swimming on the surface 20 feet above us as I sway on the line, and I silently cheer when I get a glimpse of stripes. Diving the channel beside the wreck of the Macaw, we spot two gigantic manta rays, which grace lucky divers, including me, with encounters just inches away. We do our only drift dive at this same spot later in the week and we'll see another manta ray and two divers will spot a "huge" tiger shark. The channel stands out as a top site, but with often-heavy current and surge, it is a difficult dive.
Most of the divers in our group move quickly through their "kill" lists; Japanese angels swarming on the wings of a downed Corsair in 110 feet of water, large gray reef sharks moving in-between packs of bullying Galapagos, bandit angelfish, giant ulua (treavally), swarming kahala (amberjack) eyeballing our cameras, Thompson's anthias, whitemargin eels, octopus under nearly every rock, and huge schools of chubs accompanied by sometimes dozens of the glorious yellow queen nenue. Tuna come by as do amazingly large and curious uku (snapper). The fish are larger and more curious than any I have encountered and the used rolls of film and videotape accumulate faster than the salt crust in our hair.
There is no pretty coral here; the reef is largely rugged limestone. If you're looking for color in anything other than the fish, Midway is not for you. Visibility can be quite good, but it is variable and can go south very quickly. Divers should be very clear with their expectations before choosing Midway as a dive destination. Know what's here and what's not. Rare fish, nudibranchs, and other small things can be found in abundance and should delight the most obsessive reef-crawler. Those who just want to see the big toothy stuff will be equally as thrilled. However those who think the Caribbean is the ultimate dive destination will probably be disappointed.
We spot none of the atoll's famed colony of monk seals underwater, although they are visible resting on the beaches and occasionally in the water from shore. We see members of the resident spinner dolphins from the boat, and hear them on a few dives, but as with the seals, sighting them underwater is rare. You will hear no complaints. Even the less experienced divers in the group show up early and enthusiastically as the week wears on and the nitrogen accumulates. Half the group adds two extra dives at the end of the week and many of us spend each day angling for more. Night dives, shore dives, we can't get enough. But the Midway dive staff rebuffs our attempts, and at the end of the week we all leave wishing we had more time, and plotting our return in September.
Midway Phoenix provides the boat, dive masters, and crew for divers who visit Midway, either traveling as groups or individuals. Mike Nakachi who is owner and operator of Aloha Dive Company out of the Big Island of Hawaii arranged our charter. Along with dive master Earl Kam, Mike has the best dive operation in the Hawaiian Islands, and as such, several of their very happy clients jumped at the chance to travel with them to Midway.
A small amount of rental equipment is available on Midway, but divers are generally advised to bring their own. In our case those few divers who did not travel with their own gear had it provided to them by Aloha Dive. The boat is equipped with both steel 72s and AL80 tanks, which is a bit irritating, as you never know what you're going to get, so weight adjustment can be tricky.
In addition to the Sea Angel, which our group chartered exclusively, there is another smaller boat available. Boat captains are provided by the sport fishing operation, and this contributes to some tension onboard. The rift between the fishing and diving camps is obvious on Midway, and has led to more than one confrontation. Chumming by the fishing boats caused problems at sites frequented by divers as the numerous sharks were very aggressive towards divers. As a result, the waters have been divided up into separate areas for diving and fishing. The boat captains can be inflexible when it comes to dive trips, although our captain was quite accommodating most of the time.
The dive masters themselves are obviously extremely knowledgeable and very good divers. However, I found them to be generally very conservative and rigid. Understandably, there is no decompression diving on Midway, and the deepest dive we were taken to all week was a wreck in 114 feet of water. Later dives were often extremely shallow. Our bottom times were not limited, except by our computers because of the aforementioned no-decompression limits, but we were often strongly encouraged to adhere to a predetermined time limit that seemed unreasonably short, and our group's long bottom times were frowned upon. One of the crewmembers commented several times, incorrectly, that dive computers do not take into account previous dives when computing nitrogen loading. There is a chamber on the island, but its operators are apparently fairly limited in the severity of DCS that they can treat.
There seems to be little exploratory diving to have taken place around the atoll, and the staff appears to have fallen into a routine out of which they have little interest in venturing. The handful of dive sites they take clients to are quite good, but many of us were left wondering at what lies elsewhere. Questioning of the staff on these points was usually not taken well, and they were often defensive. Night diving appears to be absolutely out of the question for paying customers, although certain staff members have done their share and it is mentioned as an option on the Dive Midway website. Generally, we set up our own equipment or it was set up for us by Mike and Earl of Aloha Dive Company who as previously mentioned had arranged the charter. This suited us fine, as on occasion when we would arrive at the boat some of us would find our equipment was set up incorrectly by the Midway staff. However, it resulted in more work for Mike and Earl than many of us would have liked. Dan, who was also my group’s guide on most dives, usually did dive briefings and he was excellent. Thanks to his briefings and knowledge of the sites, I got the most out of each dive site. Other divers in our group who had different guides were not so lucky.
There is no choice of hotels on Midway. Accommodations are in the former military barracks and are basic, but clean and comfortable. There are televisions in each room, but I never turned mine on so I can't tell you what channels are offered. Phones in the rooms can be used for on-island communication, and cell phones can be rented for off-island calls, but at a steep $1 per minute.
Transportation is by foot, bike, or golf cart. Most of our group opted for bikes, which are, um, rustic. But they're perfect for cruising between the boat dock and the barracks as well as touring around the small island. We had little time between dives to do much besides eat, but the day of departure there is no diving and the plane doesn't leave until evening, so this offers an excellent opportunity to ride the forest and beach trails.
There are two restaurant choices on the island. The Galley is cafeteria-style and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner all week. Food is basic but plentiful, and there are usually some curries and teriyaki in addition to burgers and hotdogs. The Clipper House is a French restaurant on the beach close to the barracks. It serves breakfast and dinner 5 days a week, and the menu is set at the beginning of the week. This was easily my choice. The food was very good, ranging from pork loin to fresh seared fish, to lamb chops. Desserts were equally good and included a passion fruit soufflé and profiteroles with chocolate sauce. Some people claimed the portions were too small, I personally found them more than adequate and so superior in terms of quality as to make the Galley an unappealing alternative.
There is also a beach bar with limited hours that's a nice place to grab a drink before dinner, and another bar/club located in the town center with pool tables, karaoke, and late hours.
For those few hours between diving, there are basketball and tennis courts and a weight room. Two gift shops will satisfy souvenir hunters with a variety of shirts, jackets, books, postcards and small Midway collectibles and a very small grocery offers a few items and toiletries.
Price will vary according to whether you're traveling as part of a charter group or an individual. Airfare from Honolulu is around $500. Accommodations and food are reasonably priced with rooms from $112-150 a night per person, including 3 meals a day and a VIP suite for around $200 a night. The diving was fairly expensive, but as I consider it to be world class, well worth the price. Boat diving is conducted only from May to September due to storms, and a 7-day, 15 dive package runs $800. Those interested in visiting Midway can visit http://www.fishdive.com/dive/home.html for more information as well as a few photos.
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