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Midway Marine Debris: Finding our Land Legs

October 23, 2018

The team dodges a hurricane at Pearl and Hermes Atoll and arrives at Midway Atoll to continue their mission on land.


Imagine all the most beautiful, different blue shades in water, visibility to the ocean floor, and healthy reefs filled with fish. Welcome to Midway Atoll!

After dodging a hurricane by leaving Pearl and Hermes Atoll a day early, we pulled into the picturesque pier at Midway Atoll. Midway’s limo service (8-seater golf carts) greeted and escorted us to pick up our bikes for island transportation. We unloaded all of our gear and said goodbye to the floating home NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette that we loved so much. Next, we collect marine debris in the water and around the shores of Sand, Eastern, and Spit Islands of Midway Atoll.

Boathouse and bikes at Midway Atoll

No need to worry about finding a bike parking space in front of the boathouse, where we prep our boats and gear every morning (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

We were pleasantly surprised that we had AMAZING weather for the next couple days. The waters in the atoll looked like a lake—calm and serene. With amazing weather like this, what are we to do? Time to towboard! If you’ve been following along, you already know about towboarding (a fan favorite here on the marine debris team), but, just in case you haven’t… towboarding is when two snorkelers hold onto a wooden “towboard” attached to a motoring boat, and fly through the water to look for derelict fishing gear on the reef. Even on calm days where you can see the bottom, we still find many nets that you can’t see from the surface.

Towboarders are pulled behind a small boat to survey the reefs for debris and derelict fishing nets

Towboarders are pulled behind a small boat to survey the reefs for debris and derelict fishing nets (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).

While towboarding, this is the spotter’s view looking back on the snorkelers in the water. The spotter is the person on the boat with the coxswain (captain) to make sure the towboarders are safe and to help guide the coxswain.

Derelict fishing net over coral reef

A net, over gorgeous reef, that we found while towing but could not see from the surface (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Once the weather turned a bit, we decided it was time to clean up the islands. Our team may look and act like a school of fish, but we have land legs, too, and were excited to clean up some important habitat on land. We started with Eastern Island, the second largest, and then made our way to Spit Island (the smallest).

Kelly and Rebecca collect marine debris along the shores of Eastern Island

With lots of bending and lifting, we clean up marine debris along the shores of Eastern Island at Midway Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).

These two islands are home to many endangered birds, turtles, and monk seals, but unfortunately, collect a lot of debris on their beaches. It’s hard to believe some of the items we find on the beach. Of course, there are tons of lighters, plastic bottles, bottle caps, nets, and buoys but you also find shampoo bottles, oyster spacers, eel cone traps, PVC pipes, drums/jugs full of oil or fuel, action figures, tennis balls, and many other random items that float here from all around the world.

Mannequin head found on Eastern Island at Midway Atoll

We didn’t expect to find our teammate with two heads, nor did we expect that a mannequin head would make its way onto Eastern Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Seeing these pristine beaches littered with debris is a bit depressing, but our team feels awesome when we get to drive back by the beaches to see how much cleaner they are once we have been there. In just one week here, we collected more than 33,000 pounds of debris from land and sea! Returning days later, there’s already new debris washing ashore. Remember that while cleanups are great, extremely helpful and important, only reducing or refusing plastics will help prevent this problem. Our animals are depending on it and so are we... for a future free of debris.

Meet the Blogger

Kelly Williams

Kelly Williams

Kelly earned her master’s degree in Zoology from University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa researching shark sensory biology and behavior. If she is not in the water, Kelly is outdoors adventuring or with friends and family. Kelly is excited to get back to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, remove as much marine debris as possible, and bring awareness to this global issue.

You can make a difference

Minimize plastics in everyday items you purchase by seeking minimal, sustainable, or biodegradable packaging for deodorants, soaps, and shampoos.

Follow us

Follow the team as they travel to the islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with photos and updates on their Story Map.


NOAA Fisheries marine debris project in the Pacific Islands region is supported by NOAA (Pacific Islands Fisheries Science CenterPacific Islands Regional OfficeMarine Debris Program, and the Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program) in partnership with the University of Hawaii's Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric ResearchNational Fish and Wildlife FoundationU.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceMidway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, the State of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

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