Page last updated at 13:39 GMT, Saturday, 29 March 2008

Diary from the middle of nowhere

Albatross on Midway (BBC/Mark Georgiou)

BBC environment correspondent David Shukman reports on the plastic peril facing the remote Pacific atoll of Midway.

Plastic debris collects around the atoll, scene of a seminal World War II battle, with serious consequences for its wildlife.


Time to hand over a gift from the other side of the world: a cloth carrier bag from the very distant town of Modbury in Devon.

Rebecca Hosking
Rebecca's campaign links Midway to Devon's Modbury

The connection behind this offering is the camerawoman Rebecca Hosking, who is from Modbury and came here to film on Midway two years ago.

She was so moved by the plight of the dying albatrosses that on her return to Devon she began a campaign against plastic waste which has gathered national momentum.

I'm told the Modbury cloth bag will now feature in Midway's visitor centre alongside the horrific array of plastic toys and cigarette lighters and toothbrushes found in the bellies of the seabirds.

On the subject of toys, thanks to those of you who've offered suggestions for the identity of the much-travelled toy soldier I found during the beach clean-up.

One suggestion is that it's Gigantor, a robot from a cartoon popular in Japan and the US back in the 60s; another that it's a model of Ted Hughes' Iron Giant.

Either way I'm going to add many more miles to his voyaging because he's staying in my pocket for the journey home, a battered reminder of the current threat to Midway.

I take a few moments for the echoes of Midway's past.

I'm shown the cinema built for the military in 1941 - it's totally unchanged, a fabulously evocative period piece.

The walls are decorated with huge, original murals depicting scenes of wartime valour - hardy construction workers or daring beach assaults.

Mural in the cinema
Midway has evidence of its battles past

Valour of a different kind is needed now.

As the refuge manager, Barry Christenson, sees it, in World War Two the US forces had good intelligence on their enemy and a plan for how to respond.

By contrast, there's now limited intelligence on the whereabouts of the plastic threat and no plan for a response at all.

So what's the answer? He hopes that people will start to think about the consequences of their use of plastic.

That way, a bit less may end up killing the wildlife here. I can't help thinking that this Battle of Midway will take a lot longer than the last one.


Midway's story of beauty defiled casts a powerful spell. I gather there is huge interest in our coverage.

At our vantage-point overlooking the ocean, I just finish a live broadcast for the Ten O'Clock News when the studio director comes on the line from London saying a friend of hers has seen our reports and wants to volunteer to join the plastic clean-up.

Turtle on Midway (BBC/Mark Georgiou)
The colours are spectacular
I have seen what seems to be the best and the worst of this place.

I am a bit colour blind but even I can tell that the colours of the lagoon are so ridiculously pure - even lurid - that we can't help calling out to each other to point them out.

In the clear light of morning, the first stirrings of the albatross chicks never fail to make me smile.

I swear that in the five days I've been here I've seen a few start to make their first steps and even shake out their misshapen wings. Maybe it's just that they are winning me over.

I find myself riveted by the ritual play of pairs or trios of the adolescent albatrosses - a dramatic bobbing of the heads, a beak tucked under one wing and then a spirited and synchronised trumpeting.

Map. BBC
On board a launch there is a cry as someone spots the miraculous sight of spinning dolphins - they really do leap out of the water and hurl themselves around. I catch sight of everyone grinning.

As we accelerate to what feels like an incredible speed, the dolphins playfully keep ahead of us. It is as if they are performing for Rob Magee's camera.

And then there is a far less showy community of humans here - earnest, committed, smiling.

They live in the shadow of Midway's military past - whitewashed barracks and lots of concrete - but somehow create the delightful atmosphere of a hamlet with a real sense of purpose.

Which is just as well. Because people here have to contend with Midway's darker side - a plastic invasion that threatens to be overwhelming.

Every day or so brings more plastic waste - to the beaches, to the birds and to the outer reefs.

I visit one reef with John Klavitter, one of the experts here, and standing waist-deep in surprisingly cold water, he shows me how to cut the tough plastic of nets and ropes.

It is a horrible job because the fibres snag on the sharp twists of coral. Without boots and gloves we would be cut to ribbons. And despite hacking away for several minutes, it feels like we have hardly started. I look up and wish I hadn't noticed another load of netting on a rock next door.

We have severed so much plastic from the coral that the kayak we are loading threatens to capsize.

You need a pretty strong sense of morale to deal with a threat this big. But Midway is such a precious place that, whatever the odds, no one talks of giving up the battle.


Plastic waste challenge on Pacific island


Anyone missing this little toy, some kind of futuristic space warrior? I found it on a beach during a clean-up operation.

Plastic space toy
On an island far, far away...

It has a lot of miles under its belt - it must have travelled across a great tract of the Pacific Ocean to get here.

How do I know? Well, for one thing there are no children on Midway and haven't been for years.

Also, it was buried amid a vast tangle of fishing nets, bottles, computers, crates and baskets, all of which had drifted here on one of the world's great ocean currents, the North Pacific Gyre.

Like something out of the film Toy Story, this little figure must have spent months at sea, surviving storms and maybe even being swallowed by an albatross and fed to a chick that then died.

Who knows? Maybe a child dropped it overboard during a holiday cruise. Or it was chucked into the rubbish and somehow got swept into the sea.

Maybe a household in Japan or California was having a spring-clean and, with the children growing up, the toys were no longer wanted.

Any ideas? Please let me know.

Witnessing a beach clean-up is like peering into a darker side of our throwaway culture.

Plastic bag experiment (BBC/Mark Georgiou)
Scientists are looking at the long-term consequences

We talk about "throwing away" but in reality "away" can mean a place like Midway.

And the cost is grisly. The island is littered with the bodies of albatrosses that haven't made it. Their stomachs are brimming with plastic.

Brightly coloured, and similarly shaped to the birds' much-loved diet of squid, the tiny plastic items we use every day often prove lethal.

Disposable cigarette lighters are a favourite. Without even trying too hard, we collected 62 in a short stroll along the shore littered with dead birds.

I'm not a smoker so I don't know how long those lighters last before the fuel runs out. A week or two? Well, their legacy is far, far longer.

Midway is stunningly beautiful and about as remote as you can get. But look more closely at what's lying in the sand and the outside world feels very close indeed.

Dolphin on Midway (BBC/Mark Georgiou)


You could set a great thriller on Midway; Hitchcock would have loved it.

Incredibly isolated, thousands of miles from the nearest continent, this precious but tiny speck of land not only carries eerie reminders of the horrible costs of war, but also there's one life-form that clearly dominates - the bird.

Here, the albatross is king

Count the Laysan albatrosses, for example, and you reach nearly two million.

By contrast, count the human beings here and you don't get much past 60 or 70.

My arrival, with producer Mark Georgiou and cameraman Rob Magee, has added three more.

Everywhere we go, we are massively outnumbered. There are albatrosses on every patch of grass, in every gap in the concrete laid in World War Two, even in the dusty potholes of the roads.

No surprise, but when the wind drops the air is heavy with a mild but unmistakeable whiff.

Spice of life

The sounds of Midway are more welcome. In addition to the whistling and cries, there's a loud rattling as the adolescent albatrosses clatter their beaks in play.

It's a wonderful avian concert - though, being totally frank, to have any chance of sleeping through the rising volume of dawn I do need ear-plugs.

We humans are quiet by comparison. Apart from the weekly flight from Honolulu, there's only the odd rumble of the golf-buggies used to get around and the occasional crackle of a walkie-talkie.

Albatross in flight. Image: BBC
Pollution is one more problem the birds could do without
Life here is gently paced, and exceptionally friendly.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service runs things - long gone are the more muscular military days.

Now, no one passes without a wave or greeting.

We stay in the old officers' quarters in a Cold War building, clean if austere, and our footsteps echo in the long whitewashed corridors.

Up a short path is a canteen where Thai contract staff serve up three good meals a day. The head chef, Pong, urges me to try his spicy soups.

A little bar overlooking a beach opens most evenings.

Sunday night is bowling night in an alley left by the US Navy when it pulled out in the 1990s. A stencilled military sign warns that anyone too obviously intoxicated will be refused service.

Another notice, overlooking the sea, recalls how Midway, just a hundred miles or so east of the International Date Line, used to be the last to host a service on Easter Sundays.

Conflict zone

This island is still shaped by its role in conflict.

Plastic collection (BBC/Mark Georgiou)
It's a constant battle to clean up the waste on Midway

Two large guns flank a memorial to the epic battle in 1942 in the waters nearby when Japan's superior fleet was suddenly, crushingly stopped in its tracks - a turning point in the entire war.

In those times, Midway was a vital military asset. A channel was blasted through the coral reef, the island was enlarged to carry a longer runway, and many of the birds were killed to keep the flight paths clear.

Now Matt Brown, deputy manager of the Midway Atoll Wildlife Refuge, says we are the guests on the birds' island.

When darkness falls, we're urged to keep the lights down because the petrels here are nocturnal and I've heard at least one of the confused birds slam into a brightly-lit window.

The albatrosses are settling for the night now, and everyone is careful to avoid them.

But from beyond these shores, mankind is the source of a very modern threat to these birds - plastic waste surging in with the tide.

BBC team on Midway (BBC/Mark Georgiou)
Mark, Rob and David on Midway Atoll

Warning on plastic's toxic threat
27 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
New 'battle of Midway' over plastic
26 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
Plastic bag bans around the world
28 Feb 08 |  Special Reports
Plastic blights Hawaii's beaches
11 Jun 07 |  Americas
Plastics 'poisoning world's seas'
07 Dec 06 |  Science/Nature
Plastic fibre a 'major pollutant'
06 May 04 |  Science/Nature
Islands face major waste problem
30 Mar 04 |  Science/Nature

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