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After dark, as the river of birds continues to break over the island, the wedge-tailed shearwaters begin what might charitably be called their vespers. The shearwaters are diggers, burrowing nest tunnels in the sand, and at night they sit in the holes and moan. It is a nightmare, low-budget horror-movie moan, a long, cackling, desperate wail that it is said has terrified more than one sailor. There are lesser but no less curious night sounds. Cow seals roar and bellow, contributing an odd jungle tone. Female turtles lurch out of the water like prehistoric half-tracks. They crunch over eggs, living and dead birds and slide across seal afterbirth. Eventually they reach the center of the island, where they spend the night scooping out a pit, laying eggs in it and covering and tamping down the sand over the nest they will leave by dawn and never visit again.
Above everything else is the incredible storm of birds. A strong flashlight beam will penetrate the darkness only a few feet, as the light is obscured by whirling bodies. To walk about, it is necessary to shield one's face and eyes with a hat and forearm to avoid wings, beaks and talons. Hostility and aggression are not involved; it is simply a matter of lack of space for all the living beings trying to occupy the island. Each morning there are crippled birds—soon in the unshaded tropic sun to be dead birds—flailing and shuddering on the ground, victims of aerial collisions.
The noise of the calling and moving birds is deafening and continues throughout the night. It is the sound of future traffic jams, industrial complexes and wars, noise greater than any we have yet managed to make. The sounds, smells, look and feel of this fecund, fetid place provide a weird, sensual psychedelic trip, the transporting agent being raw, unadulterated life.
Lava rocks, the remains of ancient volcanic action, form the other type of island in the archipelago. An example is La Perouse, a black pinnacle that rises 122 very straight feet out of the ocean. La Perouse has no beach, and any climb of the island begins with a dive from a boat, a swim and then a wait in the water to catch a swell that hopefully will throw one against the black cliffs, where a handhold or foothold may be found on the lava. The ascent is bad. Startled seabirds scream and rocket out of their nest crevices. Guano deposits, which crumble like papier-m�ch�, obscure the holds and make them slippery and treacherous. It is vertical all the way up, with a climber suspended over the razorlike lava outcroppings and the open sea below.
After ascending and descending, any visitor with enough adrenaline remaining can continue adventuring below La Perouse. Because of the purity of the sea, diving and underwater gawking are excellent throughout the archipelago and especially phenomenal around the lava islands. A few feet under the surface the water is effervescent as champagne because of the action of the surf against the lava cliffs. At La Perouse there are underwater caves, some eaten entirely through the base of the island. Suspended against the inward pull of these dark siphons, a diver moves among fluttering, curious schools of tang, parrot, butterfly and goat fish, so brilliantly colored as to make birds appear drab in comparison. Evil-looking green-and-black-ringed eels writhe through the coral. Tame, stately rays flap slowly by like flights of soaring eagles.
There are other, less benign, beasts. The waters of the archipelago are full of sharks, particularly just off the lava cliffs. Predators wait in these depths to scavenge young birds that fall from the rocks or, for that matter, wait for anything edible.
Necker is a larger island than La Perouse's pinnacle but similar in that its lava walls make for difficult landings. Dave Olsen is a large (6'4", 220 pounds), athletic man, not too long past his days as a college football lineman. He is also a strong swimmer, proficient enough to have competed for the U.S. in international skin diving meets. In the process of trying to get a field party onto Necker, Olsen volunteered to dive from the rubber landing raft being used to transport gear and the less aquatic members of the party ashore. "I saw the tiger sharks when I was about halfway to the rocks," he said later. "There are a lot of theories about what to do—stay quiet, get away quick, pray, cry. There is a lot of chicken in me. I always try to run. It seemed that just my flippers were on water, I was trying to get out of there so fast. When I got to the rocks, there were more sharks. I grabbed at the cliff but missed it and fell back in. Now there were dozens of sharks below, above, circling me. On the next try I must have set a world's record for a high jump from a water takeoff."
With the panting Olsen out of reach, the shark pack, now numbering some 60 fish, swerved toward the raft in an investigatory fashion. "Olsen is too big," somebody said. "They want us to throw them a smaller one."
Though the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have been a federal sanctuary throughout most of this century, the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife was unable until 1964 to assign a full-time manager. That was when Gene Kridler moved to Hawaii and took on the assignment. Now Kridler knows the stretch of reef and water better than any other man. He is unabashedly enamored with the place and his work in it.
"It bothers me a lot that Dave and I and a few others are the only ones who can know any of this," he says, speaking of the mint-green terns and schools of flaming fish, the incredible wildlife light-and-sound show on East Island, the immaculate coral sands and more. "After all, this is public land, it belongs to every American, but what are we going to do? If we are going to keep it as it is, general public use cannot be permitted."