Midway Island: Venue of an Environmental Tragedy

Have you ever heard about the Midway Island? I did not. A friend of mine mentioned Midway Island and some seabirds filled with plastic, during our dinner last week…So when I came home I started searching for more information about this curious island. I was speechless after reading, because Midway Island is the venue of an environmental tragedy.

Midway Island

Midway Island is also called the Midway Atoll and belongs to one of the most remoted islands on our planet. The 2.4 square-miles atoll is located in the North Pacific Ocean, about 1312 miles northwest from Honolulu, Hawaii. Midway belongs to the Insular Areas of the United States . That means it neither belongs to one of the 50 US states nor to the District of Columbia (the federal district of the U.S.). From above Midway Island looks like a ring-shaped coral reef, with three different islands. The left island which you can see on the map below is called Sand Island (486 ha) and the right one is called Eastern Island (135 ha). In the middle of both islands you can see Split Island with a sizes of only two football fields (2 ha).


Midway Island from above (cc@nationmaster.com)

Geographically Midway Island belongs to the northwestern part of the Hawaiians Islands, but it doesn’t belong to the US state Hawaii. The Midway Island is, like any other island group, of volcanic origin. In 1987, 2300 military and civilian employees lived on the former uninhabited island. Because at that time, Midway served as a naval base of the United States Navy. Today, only 40 scientists live on the atoll.

A brief history of Midway Island

Midway Island was discovered in 1859 by N.C. Brooks. He was the first western person who visited the island beside the indigenous from Hawaii. Seven years later he claimed the Midway Atoll for the U.S, based on the Guano Act. Than means that the Americans where authorized to occupy the islands for a certain time to obtain guano. Midway Island got his name because of its unique position between the U.S. west coast and Japan. The Island was first used as stopover for trans pacific ships.

Still today you can see old weapons of the war on Midway(cc@commons.wikimedia.org)

Later in 1903 the islands were used as residence for the worker who layed a trans-Pacific telegraph cable. In the mid-1930s Midway Island became more and more important for the increasing air traffic across the ocean, because of its perfect position. So Midway became very important for the military. In 1940 the navy began to build an air and submarine base. Two years later the battle of Midway between Japan and the USA began. The battle was considered as an turning point in the WWII. In 1992 the air base were closed, because after the war the strategic imortance of the Midway Atoll declined. In 1996, the control of the atoll were given to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service on direction of the government. At the same time the United States Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Midway Atoll as National Wildlife Refuge. From 1996 Ecotourists where allowed to visit the Midway Atoll. Since 2006 the Midway Island is a part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Death of plastic

Midway Island is the home for about three million seabirds. All in all seventeen different species can be found on the small island. The rarest of all is the so called Short-tailed Albatross als known as the “Golden Gooney.” In the early 1900′s the population declined dramatically because of feather hunters who killed adult birds on the nesting areas.

Short-tailed Albatross were very popular because of its golden feathers (cc@wfu.edu)

As if the hunting isn’t enough…Midway Island receives a significant amount of marine trash each year from the so called Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This washed up trash consists 90% of plastic (toys, bottles, buoys etc.) and accumulates on the beautiful beaches of the island. This large amount of debris represents an uncommon threat to the fragile ecosystem of the Albatrosses. Shocking to me is that in almost half of the Albatross populations digestive system plastic has been found. From the approximately 20 tons of garbage are washed up on the Midway beaches, adult Albatrosses use 5 tons to feed their chicks.

20 tones of washed up garbage every year (cc@vimeo.com)


Albatross chicks grow up in a world of plastic (cc@brightonpaperround.wordpress.com)

The reason for this is quite simple: During aging an Albatrosses mixes the colorful and shimmering plastic up with small marine fish or squid. Because of this fatal mistake one-third of the Albatross chicks die. Unfortunately an Albatross chick is not able to develop the reflex to regurgitate the plastic pieces during his first four month of living. So the plastic will stay in their stomach for good. In the end they suffer a death of starvation. Albatrosses are not the only species on Midway Island who are affected by the plastic pollution. Also seals and sea turtles confuse plastic with maritim animals when seraching for food.

An Albatross got killed by eating plastic (cc@americablog.com)

Plastic in the stomach killed Albatroos(cc@animal.discovery.com)

Dead Albatross on the beach of Midway Island (cc@marshcare.org)


Another dead Albatross body filled with plastic washed up by the ocean (cc@treehugger.com)

The Midway project

The Midway project is a beautiful but at the same time sad and horrifying journey into an environmental tragedy of our time. Photographer, artist and enviromentalist Chris Jordan shows the world with his photographs and documentary what happens with the helpless Albatross population on Midway Island. Chris Jordan returned with his small team to the island over several years to be witness of the cruel cycle of life and death.

Chris Jordan made several photographs of death Albatrosses filled with plastic

Chris Jordan showed the whole world what garbage can cause

MIDWAY is not only a stylistic environmental documatary film…Because the movie MIDWAY will take you on an emotinal and breathtaking guided tour into our fragil world.



  • Job van Hardeveld

    Job is one of the authors on Greentravelife and loves traveling, but mainly off the beaten track. Besides that his passions are music, sport and visiting cool places in Berlin. He also writes about these visits on Berlin-enjoy.com. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions 🙂