Landscape: Midway Atoll comprises an elliptical outer reef nearly 5 miles in diameter, and 580,392 acres of submerged reef and ocean and three flat coral islands totaling approximately 1,549 acres. Sand Island (1,117 acres) and Eastern Island (366 acres) are the two most prominent coral islands of the Atoll, while Spit Island is only about 15 acres in size.
Midway began as a volcanic island, created over the hot spot in the earth's crust that now supplies the Island of Hawai‘i with its lava. As the Pacific plate marched to the northwest, the forces of wind, water and changing sea level eroded the island until it disappeared beneath the ocean surface. A fringing reef, made largely of the calcareous skeletons of coral and coralline algae, formed around the island's edge, creating an atoll. As the island eroded, the reef continued to grow. Today, the basalt that was once Midway is more than 500' below the ocean surface. One day, Midway Atoll will also vanish beneath the waves.
The movement of coral sand within the atoll created the three islands and the wind and water erosion continue to change the shape and size of these islands. Before the first sailing ship crossed Midway's horizon, the islands were wind-blown sandy dunes, covered with native shrubs and grasses. Slow growing, sun-loving plants such as naupaka (Scaevola), bunch grass (Eragrostis) and puncture vine (Tribulus) thrived in the harsh, salty environment. The trees on Sand Island were derived from plantings in the last century.
Discovery of Midway: Like on many of the low islands and atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the first visitors to what is now called Midway Atoll may have been Polynesians/Hawaiians exploring the Pacific in voyaging canoes. Unfortunately, no physical evidence of their visits remains, but oral histories and chants refer to distant low-lying islands with abundant birds and turtles. Native Hawaiians named the atoll "Pihemanu," which means "the loud din of birds."
Captain N.C. Brooks was the first Westerner to "discover" Midway aboard the Gambia from Honolulu in 1859. He claimed Midway for the U.S., based on the Guano Act of 1856, which authorized Americans to temporarily occupy uninhabited islands to obtain guano. Captain Brooks named the atoll "Middlebrooks," reflecting its position between the U.S. west coast and Japan, and himself. The United States took formal possession of the unoccupied islands in 1867. Later, the name was changed to Midway. Hidden beneath the salty Pacific, the coral atolls along the northwestern Hawaiian chain put an abrupt end to many a daring seafarer's adventure. Though the first intentional settlers arrived in 1903, earlier castaways spent many a day struggling to survive on these harsh islands. For example, the General Siegel and the Wandering Minstrel wrecked on Midway's reefs in 1886 and 1888
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During the breeding season, adult tropicbirds (see one pictured above over Midway lagoon) fly in a group around one another, swinging their tail streamers from side to side for several minutes to attract the female bird. Their courtship displays are complex and consist of flying backwards, vertically, and in large, vertical circles.