Part eight: Midway

Future majestic albatross
Future majestic albatross

Our 10:30 pm arrival last night was not a strong enough reason for at least two people from our crew to not to get up and out before sunrise. With only one chance at the sunrise on Midway, how could one sleep in? Of course we had to go and explore when the day is just born, the beauty of the land is still fresh and all the unknown adventures lie ahead.

The bright white sandy beach was being just lit by the sun’s first rays, and the albatross were there to greet the sun. The adults were soaring high and swooping over the trees and coming in from the sea to their chicks. The chicks, birds the size of a small goose but skinnier, were everywhere by the thousands, on the roads, on the grass, near the Charlie Barracks hotel, on the beach, in the vegetation, on the sidewalks, on the boardwalks. You could not walk twenty feet without some chicks snapping their beak at you, or backing up clumsily while stretching the neck, peering sideways at you and falling on their fluffy butt and quickly picking themselves up, clacking their beak as if to say, I am not afraid, you just watch where you are going! The chicks were all in different stages of maturity and health, from semi-grown ones to quite small, nearly fully in the brown juvenile fuzz all over them.

The curious tern
The curious tern

The thick growths of irontrees were housing hundreds of terns. These beautiful white birds with large, dreamy black eyes and blue beaks, ending with a seriously sharp points, were flying everywhere and took interest in you if you were to stop walking near the treeline somewhere. The birds would fly very close to my face and hover some 2-3 feet away, making the distinctive “ti-r-r-t” noises, circling, joining up in pairs and flying in a fast arch, just to turn around and come back as if their curiosity got the better of them. This amazing aerial performance would last a few minutes, after which they would lose interest in you and fly away, back into the trees where they would perch on a branch, close their large eyes and momentarily fall asleep just to take off again a few seconds later.

Tropicbird in areal squabble
Tropicbird in areal squabble

Red tailed tropic birds were swooping in large circles among the trees, sometimes picking up aerial flights or arguments with each other, which caused them to bend and spin in the air, their red long tail feathers spiraling behind them, following their motion as would a trailing ribbon. I noticed that these birds were particularly relentless in chasing others from what must be their territory, for I have seen them chase and dive even on full grown albatross many times. The albatross did not seem to care much, sailing right on where they were initially going but the tropic birds, satisfied that the “enemy” was chased away, would then return to their patrol routes along the edges of the tree growth.

The entire feathery kingdom was dominated by the black, fork-tailed frigate birds. Soaring many hundreds of feet in the air, the frigates looked small from the ground but have a good 10 foot wingspan and a very small body in comparison. Beautiful fliers, frigates circled and glided so effortlessly that it looked like the gravity does not apply to these majestic travelers of the seas.

I will be a beautiful bird
I will be a beautiful bird

There were a few much smaller inhabitants of the avian world there, sitting motionless and content on their chosen branch, waiting to grow up and take off on their own. The sun heated up the little guys, making the yellow fluff on their bodies light up like a golden nimbus. I think these are tern chicks but I am not totally sure. Whoever they are, they are totally adorable and I spent quite a bit of time photographing them from different angles.

Inevitably we worked on instruments but finished by 2 pm to allow for the proper crew rest for the o’dark 30′ tomorrow take-off time. The afternoon was spent resting and taking care of endless project-related E-mail that was accumulating disproportionately in our mailboxes. When this important business finally got taken care of people spread out in different directions, and we took a “limo”, the 8-seater golf cart, and drove to the Turtle Beach. Swerving all over the road to steer clear of the albatross sitting everywhere we finally made it to the abandoned piers, offering the glimpse of turquoise blue water, and the beach, on which six green sea turtles were resting. 4-foot long, the turtles lay motionless on the beach, only occasionally turning their head or opening their eyes to take in the blue sea and white sand around them, their home and the only world they know how to live in. With pollution generated by the humans their world is becoming smaller every day, and even here, in the National Wildlife Refuge, the trash was washing up ashore everywhere. We were told by the Fish and Game biologists that all albatross chicks on the island have plastic in their stomachs, and once the volume of that swallowed trash becomes too large they no longer can hold food and starve to death.

Frigatte, the wanderer of the seas
Frigatte, the wanderer of the seas

You can see piles of bottle caps, baby pacifiers, disposable lighters and other plastic junk in the middle of their decomposing remains. Yet another reminder of how humans manage to disrupt just about every habitat on Earth with their careless way of life, all so much oriented around the disposable conveniences. Every day a worker, driving a dumpster cart around the small campus alone, collects and removes on average 200 dead albatross chicks, most dying from plastic ingestion. Of course with a 480,000 population, nobody can pick up all the dead birds elsewhere, and their remains are seen anywhere you happen to walk.

In the evening we enjoyed a swim in the ocean. The water at 28ºN was a very pleasant temperature, unlike the Saipan’s 30ºC water that almost did not freshen you up after swimming. The pristine white sand of the beach extended for a mile along the shore and for many hundreds of feet into the ocean, and had no rocks or any other unpleasantries on the bottom. We splashed and dove and the feeling of solitude and gentle calmness of the ocean was almost palpable.

Too young to fly, I'm doomed to die
Too young to fly, I'm doomed to die

In the distance we saw an albatross chick, fighting in the water. When they learn to fly the chicks sometimes land in the ocean, and, inexperienced, can’t properly fold their wings, which then become waterlogged. Once that happens the bird is pretty much doomed as it gets tired and eventually eaten by a shark, or drowns. We watched this one fight, splashing its wings and trying to paddle, making almost no progress to the sandy shore. Going to its rescue would be the typical human instinct but we probably shouldn’t, considering that 14-16 foot long tiger sharks come out in the evening to feed on these very birds. However, after watching the bird for half an hour I no longer could stand it and waded in chest deep water to the albatross. When it saw me approaching the exhausted bird pulled together whatever strength it had and pecked away at my hands, fighting for its life. I distracted it with one hand and grabbed its head from behind with the other, supporting the body and floating it along to the shore, whispering to it the wishes to never get wet again, grow up large, proud and fast, and sail above the foamy caps of the waves for thousands of miles, looking down at this small world. The bird gave up, fought no more and just dragged its six-foot wings in the water like flippers of a tired seal. Once it felt the ground, however, it redoubled the efforts to peck me so, not wanting to stress him any more I let go, and the hapless chick toddled up the sloping beach, dripping water off its feathers. He got lucky this time, and I hope he will become one of the albatross that grace the sky with their seven foot wings for many more years.

Albatross in the turquoise light of the ocean
Albatross in the turquoise light of the ocean

The day has ended, and I met its end standing waist deep in the water with the camera, hoping to take a picture of a green albatross overhead. The few that still flew around turned turquoise green in the evening light since the only light hitting them was green, from the ocean water. This turned out a difficult task, and I will try to remember this phenomenal sight and try to photograph it some time in the future, when the sun is down and the luminescent ocean lights up its magnificent seabirds with the last fading green glow.

Time travel

I tried hard to make you anxious to see what the next stop on our amazing trip is going to be, and I will stop teasing you now. From Saipan we are going to Midway. Located 1,200 nautical miles from Honolulu at 28º12’N and 177º22’W, this archipelago is at the Northwestern end of the Hawaiian chain of islands and is probably the most amazing seabird reserve in the entire Pacific. I will spare you the copy-pasting of the scientific facts that can be found elsewhere on the web and only share with you the impressions from our visit to the island. I think I will not exaggerate if I say that Midway is the highlight of the trip for us.

So, today we will get back that poor day that we lost forever when we flew from Rarotonga to Christchurch. We took off on July 6, and landed in the evening of July 5. Tomorrow we will have another July 6. Try to explain that to your travel agent or, worse, to your company travel office who try to understand what happens only after you send them a stack of receipts from your travels. But never mind them; what we are here all about is today’s flight.

Weather along the way
Weather along the way

On this 6.5 hour flight we saw it all. It started with the calm blue waters and puffy popcorn cumulus, as appropriate for a self respecting tropical location such as Saipan. We flew over these blue waters, reflecting the white puffs of clouds, raining back into the ocean that gave them birth, for a couple of hours, and then the picture has changed dramatically. At about 22ºN we have entered a large weather front, with associated multiple cloud decks including some at probably 40,000 feet plus, rain showers and finally tall convective towers that reached in excess of 45,000 feet, from our humble estimates. The towers penetrated the lower and middle stratus decks like mighty trees penetrate the fern undergrowth and then the shrubs in the forest, with their tops lost somewhere above us and hiding from view behind the upper cloud decks. A lot of time we flew in the clouds with no visibility, the pilots flying the airplane by the instruments.

Sunset at 25ºN
Sunset at 25ºN

And then, without much warning, we came through the frontal system and into the open, and then came the sunset. The puffy cumulus on the Northern side of the front got hit by the incident light from the setting sun, and the clouds lit up along their edges in changing orange and pink colors like fantastic candles. There are millions of pictures of sunsets on the internet, and many are very good, but I don’t think this should stop one from taking a few more that you get to see in person, or even better than that – watching the nature’s great show, performed right in front of us, with eyes wide open and breath held up so that not to miss a single moment of it. Every time we see something this magnificent I think to myself how lucky we are to be on these flights and to see these sights. Yes, we are tired and keep one eye on the instruments even during such sunsets but we have learned to enjoy the short but so memorable moments that nature keeps sending our way.

Sun breaks through clouds for the last glance at the ocean
Sun breaks through clouds for the last glance at the ocean

And then, really quickly, the day ended. Oh well, we will have the same day again tomorrow. The pilots brought the airplane down to Midway from the 45,000 foot final ascent, and landed softly on the dark runway of the island just long enough to accommodate that very runway.

The adventure started right away. We have heard the tower on the radio, and a fire truck came out to guide us to the parking area. All was as usual until we heard “we will stop to move some birds, there are more than usual today”. And we saw the chase vehicle stop, people jump out of it and start picking up large albatross birds from the taxiway and carrying them off to the sides, where hundreds more of the same birds were sitting, resting for the night. Once we could proceed without the danger of running over the birds we parked the aircraft and finished our work.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Reserve Manager and logistics people met us and, navigating between hundreds of albatross sitting everywhere, on the grass and on the roads, drove us carefully to the hotel, where a late meal was awaiting us in our rooms. After a short introduction to the island rules we retired for the night, ready for the major exploration to start tomorrow morning.

Part seven: Saipan

Older people know Saipan from first hand experiences as it was a major troops transfer base during the World War II and thousands of recruits transited through Saipan. The battles fought on Saipan were bloody and many lives were lost on both the Japanese and American sides. Sadly, with the way history is taught these days the younger generation may never even hear about this island, which is too far out of the typical tourist ways and, like its neighbor Guam, is frequented more by the Japanese tourists. Major chain stores, hotels and malls curiously coexist with the third-world-country looking buildings, small shops and dilapidated barracks, creating a strange look, which is somewhat of a cross between the Solomon Islands and more Americanized Guam.

Getting better at our routine every day, we have finished our work on the airplane today at noon and had a half a day to explore Saipan, the place where we may or may not come again for our projects in the future but that for sure is not a routine destination for any of us. A half a day is a lot of time! Later that evening a friend thoughtfully noted that our global projects are really unique in yet another way, that we are really learning to switch quickly between work and touristing on these trips: you lay out your plans, focus very intently on work in the morning and really use your skills to quickly complete your tasks, and then you are done, and in the next 15 minutes we turn into tourists, ready to absorb everything that the remaining daylight hours are willing to afford us. At the beginning of our journey this was not as smooth as now, we have come a long way in learning to use our time as judiciously as a traveler in the desert uses his water. But today we had a lot of time, and we were on a mission to see Saipan.

Remember forever
Remember forever

I generally prefer to see natural beauty than the traces humans leave on the planet, and who can blame me? What we saw today can’t be described in any other way than very, very sad. To see the beautiful cliffs overhanging lush tropical jungle was exhilarating at first, but the next thing you learn was, during the war the Japanese people jumped off these cliffs to their death to avoid being captured by the advancing American troops, for they were lied to and believed they would be tortured by them if they were captured alive. Who and why would tell their people, including families with children, a lie that would make them jump off 300-foot cliffs? What benefit would that bring a leader?

This is why flame trees bloom in red
This is why flame trees bloom in red

Fear. That would bring more fear. And if people are afraid you can lead them where you want if they think you will make them safe, that is as much as I can figure out. Cruel satisfaction that you can outwit the people that you, as their leader, are responsible for, and can keep manipulating others, standing in the blood of those you swore to protect. I am not particularly religious but if there is something I’d send souls to hell for, that would be one of those sins.

I can’t really describe the feelings from seeing the memorials on Saipan. Enormous sadness and anger for what had happened, and imagining how the cliffs could have echoed the laughter of people, just like they do today – both Japanese and Americans together, alive with their children, and instead they heard the cries of agony and gun fire, and more of the same, until the sky turned black and the ground turned red. Truly the human history is built on blood and bones. I hope we have learned from that.

I want to show no other photos from this heartbreaking part of our tour of Saipan than the blossoms of the flame trees against the Suicide Cliffs and the inscription that I hope people will read and remember forever.

It is rather difficult to shift your mind from these tragedies onto something else but the time moves on. Everything is a balance, even if a fragile one, and the revitalizing natural beauty helps you get over the sadness and hopelessness of what people do sometimes. We moved on, and Saipan had more to show us. Our next stop was the Grotto, a large cavity connected to the ocean by an underground natural tunnel, which apparently the destination of choice for technical scuba diving. Having no skill nor time for that, we nonetheless enjoyed watching the Grotto as the surges of water from the ocean passed through the underwater tunnel and burst into the opening of the Grotto, turbulent but crystal clear and blue, just to subside and run off the razor sharp rocks in foamy cascades just a few seconds later.

The Grotto
The Grotto

When I say “razor sharp” I mean it; I now realize that the abrasive basaltic lava of Mauna Loa was simply smooth compared to the cruel jaggedness of the high-silica rhyolites on Saipan. Worn down to razor blade sharpness by the constant work of the tides, the ragged spires of the volcanic rock are truly wicked, which I found out in a hurry when I grabbed a hold of one of them, trying to keep balance. That I did, but numerous pinpricks, small cuts and abrasions just from that momentary handhold will remind me of this for a while. I hung my photo backpack on one of the spires and it clung to it like to a giant Velcro made of barbed fishing hooks, with a scary tearing sound that the strong nylon made when it took the bites from the rock. I think the divers going in must be ultra careful getting out of the water, for being thrown by a wave against these walls would be at least the beginning of a very painful trip to a hospital, if not worse.

A long time later and far away from here, I will remember this place and think that as I am busy with the daily hustle and bustle, at that very moment, thousands of miles away, the ocean surges into the Grotto on Saipan, continuing its perpetual work that we possibly will never be lucky enough to witness again.

Bird Island
Bird Island

We saw the Bird Island, a white-walled cliff with lush vegetation on its top, and it was impossible to not stay there for a while, watching the waves run ashore two hundred feet below us and just absorbing the beauty of the scene. Regretably I could not take any pictures that would do the Bird Island justice so you will have to settle for what I have got.

Saipan's Red Carpet trail
Saipan's Red Carpet trail

From the Grotto the pavement turned into a single track dirt road with abundant potholes and mud puddles but easily navigable, with certain care, to a passenger car. Following it for a few minutes brought us to a short trail leading a cavernous cave, whose end was hiding in the darkness and even the entrance to which looked pretty gloomy as the sun was beginning to settle to the horizon. The path to the cave was all covered by the red blossoms fallen off of the huge flame tree growing nearby, so that it looked as if you are walking on a red carpet spread in front of you by the welcoming hand of Saipan’s forest.

The sun was setting into the ocean as we pulled over on the side of the road by the Wings Beach, not far past a sign denoting the nesting area of the endangered green sea turtles. We did not see any of these wonderful animals but the view of the sunset rewarded us sufficiently and was a worthy finale for our very long, but full of impressions and memories, day.

It was on the way back to the Hyatt hotel where we stayed when we talked about how our global travel changed our ability to do our work, yet still enjoy the sites we are so fortunate to visit, even in the time frame of just a few hours. If one were to come here just to see the island they would spend probably at least two or three days seeing all that we tried to cram into a half of one. I am sure their impressions would be different from mine. In retrospect I think about how a tourist visits places vs. how we do it akin to what suntanning vs. branding with a hot iron would be: unlike the gradual and casual soaking in of the impressions we get ours via this rapid and sometimes painful process, but unlike the suntan that often fades pretty soon, the burned in brand of memories we get tends to stay with us for a very long time.

Good bye Saipan...
Good bye Saipan...

Tomorrow we will move on to the next location, the one I have been tempting you with for the last few days. This is going to be a totally unique place that some people wait for many years to visit, and we are very lucky for our work to take us there.

Northern Hemisphere, we are back!

Heading North from Darwin
Heading North from Darwin

Today is the Independence Day in the U.S.

We had a lot of work in the morning, and we had the right people for it. Our ground support crew who flew all the way from Colorado provided the necessary services to obtain the cryogens for the instruments, shipping and other miscellaneous help that we needed on the day of departure. The Pearl Flight Centre provided transportation and a person constantly available to us in case we needed help; they were great, I would call them any time I needed help in Darwin. Before too long we were ready to go and took off from Darwin, leaving behind the wonderful Northern Territories land and estuaries with salties waiting for their next hapless tourist for a meal.

And then came a disappointment: the Indonesian airspace controller did not allow us to do the profiling required for our sampling. Frustrated, we chugged along (at .8 Mach that is) for more than two hours until we finally were able to start vertical profiling in the U.S. controlled airspace. The purpose of this flight was to see if we can detect the convective effects of the warm pool, and even the few profiles that we completed North of 4ºN will give the scientists some information on that. It would have been so much better if we were able to do the profiling all the way along the track. The air traffic controllers do not exactly see the attentive support of strange requests from airborne research aircraft as an important part of their job, which is a pity.

Diffraction halo around the airplane shadow on cloud tops
Diffraction halo around the airplane shadow on cloud tops

At one point we flew over some thin dispersed clouds with the sun above and slightly behind us, and a curious effect, which I had seen many times before but never really described, was visible again: the Gulfstream cast a shadow onto the clouds and the diffraction around the airplane caused a rainbow-like halo to appear on the clouds below. Thanks to the fast response of a SLR camera that I grabbed and fired in a split second once it occurred to me that I should not just stare at it in awe with my mouth open but also capture it for you, you can see what that looked like.

Popcorn cumulus near the equator
Popcorn cumulus near the equator

The NOAA forecasters promised that we will encounter “convection like you have never seen before” on this flight, and we were waiting by the windows with the cameras warmed up, ready to take the incredible pictures of 60,000 foot thunder towers and hundred mile anvils. Ha ha! The most we have seen were the 20-foot in diameter puffy cumulus clouds that were not reaching any higher than grandmother’s attic (well, they were probably 2,000 feet in diameter and 5,000 feet high on occasion but still nothing like promised). The most exciting clouds on this flight were the featureless overhanging cloud deck all along our track that we got immersed into on the high ascents, with visibility of zero and almost no turbulence, meaning the clouds are just hanging there with nearly no convection going on, and some silly “popcorn cumulus”, the happy-looking maritime convection that builds quickly, bumps you a bit when you fly through it, rains warm rain and reappears in the same places nearly every day. The lack of tall major convection was a bummer for our anticipated photo op. Oh well, on the other hand the pilots didn’t have to worry about finding a safe passage through the thunderclouds to bring us into Saipan.

Saipan was overcast, warm and humid. Did I mention humid? That would be a sauna-like humid, once the cabin door opened everything in the cabin fogged up, including all metal parts, instruments and even my eye glasses. That was right on par with Honiara and I have to admit that Rarotonga mow holds the third place. It is not surprising that we usually start experiencing “tropic-itus” after a few weeks of operations in the tropics: condensation causes slight corrosion inside computers and on other electronic contacts, and instruments start having intermittent failures that are very difficult to localize and repair. All of our clothing that was so welcome in the 65-degree cabin immediately stuck to our bodies once we walked outside, reminding us that people can never be happy: it is either too hot, or too cold, or too humid or too dry. Poor nature just can’t suit the picky people. It is a good thing the nature doesn’t care.

Periodically turning on windshield wipers instead of turn signals (you will know why if you drove on both sides of the road in different countries interchangeably for a while), our caravan of rental cars made it to the Hyatt Regency in the dark and we crashed in our Barbie-doll-pink rooms. Tomorrow we will meet at 7:30 am to go to the airplane to work on the instruments. The arrangements for the next flight are in place, and the next destination is not just interesting, it is unique so we are all very much looking forward to it. But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves here. You will know what it is in a couple of days.

Tracks in the sand

The beach at the Casuarina Coastal Reserve was very long, and people who left their snorkel-equipped Landrovers in the parking lot only wandered in the nearest quarter mile of it. For the rest of the shoreline, as far as the eye could see, there was nobody. The Pacific chose to be calm, and small waves ran ashore, at an angle this time, filling the air with the rhythmic whoosh of the gentle surf.

I was walking along, with my camera in my hand and my scattered thoughts in my head, and it seemed not to matter where to go. The cynical ones of us might sarcastically note that it is easy not to worry about where to go if one is well fed, has a car waiting and a hotel room to go back to. I would reply that I actually forgot to eat in the last 12 hours, and wasting time for that now seemed sacrilegious in this last hour before sunset. At the moment none of that really mattered. I was alone on an endless Australian beach and I had all the time in the world. All two hours of it.

Have you ever had a split second moment when feelings and emotions all of a sudden seem bright colored, vivid, and you get a glimpse at something quite common as if it is brand new to you, never seen before, or as if you are seeing it from a new, different angle?

The sand was light brown and very fine, dry and leaky, and it formed tiny dunes all of two inches high. There was a track on the sand, a small series of dimples and dashes, angled after each other in one direction, weaving through the tiny dunes. And at the end of it was a small hermit crab. I stopped and lowered my backpack to the ground, then kneeled in the sand. The tiny creature was hiding in its shell, content and safe, and did not move. Neither did I. The tracks it left in the sand all of a sudden connected with the open ocean, with the sky above, with the trees along the shore, and with me.

The constant feeling of hurry, pressing obligation and lack of time fell off like the wall of water from a broken aquarium glass. I for the first time in ages saw the sun, and the beach, and the surf, and it all was different than before, even though nothing has probably really changed. The little crab still lay motionless in the sand, attached to the end of its track, just like we all are attached to the invisible track we leave behind us in our lives. Is that track good? Is it bad? Does anyone care to see our track and to kneel over it, and will it flash back their memories if they did?

Who knows. The moment was fleeting, and it passed. I tried to hold on to it but I couldn’t.

Here it is, the hermit crab that can help the life to regain the meaning. I sincerely hope you find yours.

Tracks in the sand
Tracks in the sand