More About Midway

Midway Atoll aerial

Nowhere in the National Wildlife Refuge System are the lives of wildlife and human residents so intertwined on a daily basis. It is, in many respects, a little city, with all the structures, utilities, and types of equipment an infrastructure to support a resident human community along with the operation and management of Henderson Airfield as an emergency runway.  When Midway was operated as a Naval Air Facility it supported at one time more than 5,000 residents. While the current resident population is approximately 40, much of the original infrastructure still exists.  Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff, volunteer and contractors live on Midway to support the recovery and integrity of wildlife habitat and species while balancing their own human impact on the land and seascape and protecting historical resources.     

Wildlife: Nearly three million birds nest much of each year nest on Pihemanu (Hawaiian place name for Midway meaning loud din of birds) including the world's largest population of albatrosses, Bonin petrels and endangered Laysan ducks. Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles and spinner dolphins frequent Midway's crystal blue lagoon encircled by coral. Learn More

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

1900 - Present: Midway became an "overlay" refuge in 1988, while still under the primary jurisdiction of the Navy. With the closure of Naval Air Facility Midway Island in 1993, there began a transition in mission from national defense to wildlife conservation.  In 1996 full jurisdiction was given to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Learn More

Midway is one of the most remote coral atolls on earth.  However, because of the position of its remote location in the Pacific its became a strategic oasis for international communication, travel and defense operations. 

  • the last link in a global telegraph system, inaugurated by a message from President Teddy Roosevelt on the Fourth of July, 1903
  • a landing site for Pan Am Clippers enroute across the Pacific Ocean in the late 1930s
  • the headquarters of a 1942 battle that changed the tide of war in the Pacific
  • from July 1942 to the end of hostilities, Midway served as a submarine base that aided in bringing the war to a close
  • naval air facility that played a pivotal role in support of the Korean War, the Cold War and the Vietnam War