Studying where sharks are safe

April 28, 2000

One of the most remote populated islands on the planet, a former US Navy base in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, was the site of the decisive second world war Battle of Midway. Four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk by outnumbered American carrier pilots, changing the course of the Pacific war.

Today, Midway is a peaceful nature reserve, and the only aerial combat overhead is the generally amicable displays of rare birds that are protected by law. Among the 159 human inhabitants are undergraduate students from the University of Hawaii, which runs one of the world's most unusual academic field programmes here, and the only for-credit courses taught on an atoll.

Students attend classes at the edge of long-abandoned bunkers, examining rare bird and sea life that is so unaccustomed to interference from people it is not afraid of being approached and studied. The students have even discovered new kinds of shrimp and seaweed inside the sheltering reefs of the atoll. So inspirational is the setting that the university is adding a course about nature writing and considering another in photography to be taught on the atoll, isolated enough that it takes three hours to reach by jet from Honolulu.

And so historic is it that students discuss the cold war in the officers' quarters where president Richard Nixon met secretly with South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu in 1969 to map out the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

"This is the best classroom there is," said Rose Tseng, chancellor of the university's Hilo campus, which runs the programme. "How could you not learn here?"

Thanks to military security limits that ban fishing within 50 miles, Midway is home to an almost virgin community of marine life in and around its turquoise lagoon. There are 258 species in all, including sharks, turtles, seals and dolphins. It is the only place in the world where recreational divers can see masked angelfish, Schlegel's groupers and Hawaiian groupers.

Midway also boasts 70 per cent of the world population of Laysan albatrosses, whose uncoordinated but noisy fertility ritual has won them the nickname "gooney birds". "Many places have field classes, but none at a place like this," said Karla McDermid, who chairs the university's natural sciences division and runs the Midway field programme. "Any subject that ties in with the importance of habitat restoration and cross-reef currents, they can see it here."

So far, the university has courses at Midway covering central Pacific sea birds, the marine science of atolls, cetaceans, marine invertebrates, and the biology of sharks. "You can see so many species here, and I don't have to worry about them eating students," Ms McDermid said of the sharks that are too well fed on the abundant fish life to bother with people.

The delicate ecology of this scrap of dry land in the Pacific is the primary topic, which Ms McDermid describes as a lesson in hope in a world of environmental problems.

Students live in former navy officers' quarters and dine in the one-time navy galley. When it is necessary to retreat indoors, they use a makeshift classroom in the former navy hangar. In addition to their studies, they help band birds for scientific research and work clearing non-native plants and drifting nets.

Despite the atoll's isolation some students have returned to Midway after graduating to work - as dive masters, rangers or guest services workers.

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