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Joy And Sorrow At Midway Atoll

The Emotions That Can Save Us From Plastic Pollution

I stepped out of the plane’s cargo hold and was immediately flooded with blinding light and surrounded by disembodied voices. Exhausted, I didn’t know where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do. Eventually, I was whisked away into the warm midnight air on a stretch limo golf cart. But when it bumped off the airfield, everything else melted away, as my brain turned off every sense except for sight. What I saw in the headlights was incredible.

There were huge birds—everywhere.

A tiny portion of the albatross nesting area on Sand Island, at about 50% capacity.

The gravel path wasn’t so much a road as it was an avian slalom. But as we slowly maneuvered around these large, flapping obstacles, something in the sand glinted in the bumpy light and caught my attention: a plastic bottle cap.

Then another. And another.

Halfway between San Francisco and Tokyo, I had just landed on Midway Atoll, one of the most remote islands in the world. I had read about Midway’s famous seabird population, and expected to be surrounded by albatrosses, terns, petrels, and tropicbirds at all times.

A cloud of sooty terns encircles me as I walk across Eastern Island. Photo by Matt Byers/FWS.
The back porch of the Volunteer House, where I lived for four months.
Clockwise from top left, some of the birds who call Midway home: white tern, black noddy, red-footed booby, Laysan duck.

But every time I sat down to chat with the albatrosses on my back porch or to record banded Laysan ducks through my binoculars, I was always surrounded by something else: plastic.

The beaches, the trails, the roads, the fields—every inch of Midway is covered with the refuse of humanity. Fishing debris, cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, plastic floats, laundry baskets, action figures, flip flops, mahjong tiles, fuel cans, eel traps, Legos, water bottles… You name it—if it’s made of plastic, it has washed up on Midway.

A sampling of the plastic curios I collected on Midway.

Even the beach itself is part plastic. Unidentifiable multicolored bits are breaking into ever smaller pieces and blending into the white coral sand. Truly, plastic permeates every pore of this tiny atoll.

Midway’s beaches are now partly composed of plastic “sand.”

It’s widely understood that the sea is filling up with plastic, which swirls in huge gyres in every major ocean. Midway gets such a large dose because of its proximity to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the most famous of these plastic accumulations. But hearing that a plastic gyre is twice the size of Texas or reading that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 doesn’t inspire the impassioned response that you might expect. Our brains just aren’t wired to comprehend globe-spanning problems—so facts and figures about issues like plastic pollution have a disproportionately small impact on us.

You know what has a big impact?

Walking through fields of albatross carcasses bursting with plastic.

This albatross had 558 pieces of plastic in its stomach when it died.

Freeing a ruddy turnstone from a plastic ring encircling its neck.

She was fine after I freed her.

Cleaning up an entire beach and not being able to tell the next day.

How I spent International Coastal Cleanup Day, 2014. Photo by Matt Byers/USFWS

Experiences like these are emotional—and I believe that’s the key to solving our biggest problems.

One of my most emotional experiences on Midway occurred in August, after most of the albatrosses had fledged. Before they fly out to sea for the first three to five years of their lives, albatross chicks usually cough up a bolus—a chunk of indigestible material about the size of a small burrito. I had been tasked with collecting these regurgitations because the Fish & Wildlife Service distributes them to schools around the United States for students to dissect. Why? Because where there should be nothing more than squid beaks and pumice stones (swallowed as digestive aids), there is, of course, plastic.

Walking through one of the denser nesting areas, I picked up perhaps 50 boluses in a matter of minutes, and my heart sank with each clump I stowed in my basket. Every single one contained plastic: a bird poisoned by humanity. After a while, I paused, and gazed out across the bunchgrass and Naupaka, contemplating my situation. I was standing in a field of plastic that had been brought there in part by parents just trying to feed their offspring. The sand was so cluttered with bones that it crunched underfoot. And I was painfully aware that the handful of juvenile birds still wandering around this late in the season probably weren’t healthy enough to make it.

A black-footed albatross feeds its chick.

After weeks spent navigating the contrast between the beauty of the birds and the ugliness of the plastic, a wave of anguish finally washed over me. I broke down in tears. With every step, every carcass, and every bolus, Midway was crying out to me.


That experience made an indelible mark on my soul. It also guided the direction of my photography for the rest of my stay. I wanted to capture the emotions of Midway in my images—both the bad and the good. The plastic brought me sorrow, but the birds brought me joy. I challenge you to stare into the eyes of an albatross and not see yourself staring back. To sit in a field and commune with three million birds is to behold the same intelligence and curiosity of humanity.

I believe it’s our emotions that will save us—so long as we take the time to sit with them… and the birds.

My last day on Midway.

This piece was originally written for ScrapsKC. All photos by Eric Dale/USFWS (me) unless otherwise noted. For more information about these photos and this story, feel free to email me.


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