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. 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 1,100 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands, because 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 US as well as an important naval air facility during the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. Designated a national wildlife refuge in 1988, 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. 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. 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. 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...
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. 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.
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’m jealous of 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. Diving the channel beside the wreck of the Macaw, we spot two gigantic manta rays, 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.
Visibility can be quite good, but it is variable and can go south very quickly. We see members of the resident spinner dolphins from the boat, and hear them on a few dives, but as with the monk seals, sighting them underwater is rare. Half the group adds two extra dives at the end of the week and many of us spend each day angling for more. 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.
There is no choice of hotels on Midway. Accommodations are in the former military barracks and are basic, but clean and comfortable. Transportation is by foot, bike, or golf cart. Most of our group opted for bikes, 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. The Clipper House is a French restaurant on the beach close to the barracks. It serves breakfast and dinner 5 days a week. This was easily my choice. The food was very good, ranging from fresh seared fish to lamb chops. There is also a beach bar with limited hours, and another bar/club located in the town center with pool tables, karaoke, and late hours.