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Then Came Man and a Mustard Seed
Bil Gilbert
September 13, 1971
...and the seed grew, a scourge over the islands, threatening the seabirds, green turtles and whelping seals. Because the smallest germ of civilization can devastate nature's outposts in the Pacific Ocean, few men are permitted to set foot on them
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September 13, 1971

Then Came Man And A Mustard Seed

...and the seed grew, a scourge over the islands, threatening the seabirds, green turtles and whelping seals. Because the smallest germ of civilization can devastate nature's outposts in the Pacific Ocean, few men are permitted to set foot on them

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The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, sometimes called the Leeward Archipelago, are among the most isolated bits of land in the world. The archipelago is a necklace of lava rocks, coral reefs and sandbars, with the easternmost island of the chain, Nihoa, some 270 miles from Honolulu, and the western outpost, Kure, 1,000 miles farther away. Polynesians briefly colonized Nihoa seven or eight centuries ago, leaving behind only a few domestic plants and certain massive stone sculptures of the Tahitian type. Around 1900 guano diggers worked several of the islands, including Midway, but they departed long before the area became of interest to American and Japanese military strategists during World War II. Currently, there is a naval installation on Midway and a Coast Guard navigational aid station on Tern Island. (Eighteen men spend a grumbling year without relief on this enlarged sandbar, the Coast Guard's loneliest duty spot.) Otherwise the Leewards are uninhabited, and have been ever since they rose out of the sea 25 million years ago.

Despite their insignificant area (in the archipelago there are only 3,200 acres of sometimes dry land) and because of their isolation from human affairs, the islands are one of the most extraordinary wildlife breeding grounds in the Pacific and, in fact, on the planet. Hundreds of thousands of screaming, fiercely competing seabirds have established enormous rookeries on the bare sands and rocks. In the spring, for example, there are more than a quarter of a million albatrosses on 1,000-acre Laysan Island. One of the few remaining nesting grounds of the green sea turtle is in the Leewards. The turtles once were found worldwide and laid eggs in the sands of our south Atlantic and Gulf beaches. This population has been almost totally wiped out by egg and meat hunters, pollution and the resort trade. Also, the archipelago is the only place where the Hawaiian monk seal, of which 1,000 individuals survive, still whelps. Finally, there evolved on these tiny dabs of land seven terrestrial birds found no place else. Four of these still survive, but barely. The three other species became extinct just 10 years after the archipelago was brushed by civilization during this century.

Because the wildlife was there and because it was obvious, given the fragility of the habitat, that the wildlife would very soon be gone if man encroached even casually, the archipelago (excluding Midway) was set aside in 1909 by Theodore Roosevelt as a sanctuary. The Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, to give the preserve its official name, is administered and guarded by the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, an Interior Department agency. Currently two bureau biologists who work out of Honolulu—Eugene Kridler, the refuge manager, and his assistant, Dave Olsen—are responsible for the management. Weather and the military permitting (the Navy and Coast Guard supply transport and logistic support when convenient), they try to visit the major islands and reefs a couple of times a year. Once in their refuge, Kridler and Olsen have a variety of biological chores. They tag sea turtles and seal pups. They make precise counts of the four surviving species of birds. (The current census is: 100 Laysan ducks, 400 Nihoa miller-birds, 7,000 Laysan finches, 3,000 Nihoa finches.) The bureau guardians also keep a general eye on the welfare and security of the vast colonies of seabirds. Occasionally the biologists take along a visitor on these trips, someone with a special interest in the sanctuary and, preferably, somebody with a strong back to help with the horse work of wrestling 400-pound turtles and 600-pound seals. Otherwise, permission to enter the refuge is granted charily by the bureau, being given only to scientific parties with the most impeccable credentials and purest motives. As a rule not more than a dozen men are allowed to visit these public lands in a year.

The very existence of these forbidden islands raises the question, what use are they if they cannot be used? The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are naturally endowed in ways that would make any resort promoter drool options and four-color brochures, and the prospect of unlocking the archipelago is not entirely fanciful. These days Honolulu newspapers and TV stations are advertising "get-away-from-it-all" vacation developments in the New Hebrides, 3,200 miles southwest of Waikiki. In the Leewards the temperature range is perfect, from the low 60s to the mid 80s, and except for warm rain during the winter months and an occasional typhoon, the sky is a turquoise bowl with cotton marshmallow clouds. The water over the reefs is inexpressibly clear, the color of creme de menthe. At midday, flying 50 feet over a lagoon, the fairy tern—a delicate white bird that looks more like a peace symbol than any dove ever sketched—so faithfully reflects the light and the color of the sea that for that moment a new species is created, the mint-green Leeward tern.

The most common sort of island in the archipelago is sandy, with bars, spits and strands. At the surf line there will be a streak of mixed color, a wind and water row of exotic shells. On the crown of some of the islands, there is a splash of green where a few low vines and tough grasses cling tenaciously. For the most part though, the islands are dead and bone white, the sand being composed of coral ground in grades from powder to grit to gravel. Against the reflecting water, under a torturous noontime sun, the coral sand burns the eyeballs like the arc of a welder's torch.

East Island is such an island. It is a long, flat, 10-acre bar. If mowed, all the coarse vegetation growing on its crown would not make 50 bales of hay. Yet, from a mile across the water, East Island appears to have what none of these islands have, trees and bushes. Approaching closely, easing through the coral heads, the thickets begin to shimmer and dissolve like a water molecule viewed through a powerful microscope and turn out to be not plants at all but animals, dense clouds of hovering, circling, gliding birds.

The pelagic species that come each spring to lay, incubate their eggs and rear their chicks are in such numbers that they defy conventional biological census taking. In May there probably are more than 100,000 seabirds on the island, above it or trying to get to it. Sooty terns—black and white crow-sized creatures—are the most common. Thousands squat over the single eggs they lay on the sand. There are as well two kinds of albatrosses, boobies, noddies, shearwaters, tropic and frigate birds. The inhabitants utilize every available scrap of East Island above the normal tide line.

Below that, in the shallow water, are turtles and seals. The turtles heave themselves onto the wet beaches to take the sun, letting it work therapeutically on the grotesque scales and parasites that hang from their shells and flesh. Other turtles by the score float just off the island, basking and copulating. Seal families—a cow and her single pup—are dispersed among the turtles. The females are gray, their almost-hairless hides scarred from shark attacks, coral abrasions and the violence of their own courting and aggressions. They are awkward on land but fiercely protective of their young. They lash out, roaring, snarling and showing their formidable teeth if they are disturbed by another seal or intruder. The pups are lamblike, lamb-sounding, small, black, velvety tubs of fat and mother's milk. They bleat piteously, making a "barf, barf" sound if they become separated even momentarily from their dams.

At its southwest end East Island narrows to a spit of absolutely bare white sand. The promontory is often swept clean by the surf and is only a marginal nesting place for the birds, used sparingly by latecomers and weaklings. On those days when there is a calm sea, it is possible to land there, lay out a tarp, flashlights, lifejacket pillows, some food and drink and spend the night on the island.

An hour before sundown the bird colony begins to increase dramatically as adults who have been fishing at sea return to feed chicks and roost on, or at least hover over, the sand until daybreak. While it remains light, the armadas of returning birds are silhouetted against the flaming Pacific sunset, at times nearly blotting it out. The only eccentric movements, eddies in the steady homing currents, are made by the frigate birds, those big, vaguely vulturine creatures whose aerial skills are matched only by the peregrine falcon. The frigates seldom, if ever, hunt for themselves but hijack fish from birds that do. The evening flocks, returning like honest merchantmen to port, must run a gauntlet of frigates that idle above, long wings set at full sail, waiting to plunder and sack. Selecting a victim, the frigate swoops, forcing the unfortunate bird to either disgorge its fish (whereupon the frigate neatly seizes the food in midair) or be driven down into the water, where a variety of predatory fish await, swimming close to the surface.

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