Dr. Earle and Wisdom

January 23, 2012

By Deb Castellana

Searching for “Wisdom” may seem like an odd name for Dr. Earle’s recent expedition to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, but actually, “Wisdom” is the name of the oldest known Laysan albatross, and it was one of the team’s goals to meet her. This grand dame is at least 60 years old and is still nesting on Midway Atoll. And yes, the expedition team found her (see photo at right.) Like Dr. Earle, “Wisdom” has witnessed profound changes in her years surveying our ocean planet.  Since she was hatched  (and coincidentally since Dr. Earle first began to scuba dive) in the early 1950’s, the ocean has changed in fundamental ways. From plastic pollution and marine debris to ocean acidification and dwindling food supplies from overfishing, Dr. Earle and Wisdom have witnessed the steady decline in the health of the ocean. If only these two legendary ladies had a common language to share their knowledge, what stories they could share.

Credit: Andy Collins, NOAA Office of NMS

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was established by Presidential Proclamation in June of 2006, and is made up of a number of federal conservation areas including the Northwestern Hawaiian Island (NWHI) Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine Refuge, State Seabird Sanctuary at Kure Atoll and the Battle of Midway National Memorial. The resulting marine preserve spreads out over 139,797 square miles (362,075 square kilometers) of Pacific Ocean.   In 2010, PMNM was designated as a UNESCO WorldHeritage site, further demonstrating a commitment to conserve this very special place. The World Heritage List includes 936 properties, 183 of which are natural, forming part of the cultural and wild heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding value.  PMNM is co-managed by the Federal Government (Department of Commerce through the NOAA Sanctuary Office – Coral Reef EcosystemReserve and National Marine Fisheries Service Marine National Monuments Program) and the Department of the Interior (through Fish and Wildlife ServiceRefuges and Ecological Services) and with the State of Hawaii (the Department of Land and Natural Resources – Division of Forestry and Wildlife and Division of Aquatic Resources) and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.


Google Earth

The isolated chain of low-lying islands and atolls is made up of open ocean and deepwater habitats, with incredible seamounts, submerged banks, and extensive coral reefs and lagoons. The diverse ecosystem within the monument is home to many species of coral, fish, birds, marine mammals, and other flora and fauna including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the threatened green sea turtle, and the endangered leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles.  For a real treat, take a virtual journey through PMNM using Google Earth, Explore the Ocean Layer.  Click the pale blue dot icons to find Crittercam video from Hawaiian Monk Seals at French Frigate Shoals. Then head northeast to find the video from the Pisces Submersible in 2007 as they ascend from 4400 feet (1330 meters) up to 3000 feet (900 meters) on a seamount, where they find an ancient shoreline indicating that it was at the surface millions of years ago, seeing deepwater animals, sponges and corals along the way.   Seeing this remote island chain from above and below makes it clear why Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is such a treasure, deserving of the protection that it has been granted. One of the expedition’s goals is to make the point that if we can maintain a healthy ecosystem here, then this can be replicated across the globe as more and more ocean comes under the umbrella of marine protected areas.  Dr. Earle praised the preserve’s natural resource management accomplishments and the additional protection provided by PMNM, saying that Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge should be a “model for the world.”

Shark at Kronos Reef  Photo: Wyland

Nearly three million birds call PMNM home for part of each year, including the world’s largest population of Laysan Albatrosses and the recently re-introduced Laysan Duck. Just a few days after the Expedition team departed, another sign of recovery appeared. For only the second time on record, a Short-tailed Albatross chick hatched outside of Japan at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.   According to Ann Bell of the USFWS, “The birds understand that the protection of this place is critical to their health. The question is, do we understand that it’s critical to our health.” The expedition team was fortunate to have unseasonably calm weather allowing Her Deepness to slip beneath the waves with Wyland and two US Fish and Wildlife divers to witness first hand the remarkable health of the Midway reef ecosystem. An 18’ long manta ray, at least 3 dozen reef sharks, numerous morwongs, and a huge school of ulua made the day of diving at Midway one of Dr. Earle’s best dives ever. She called it a ‘lifetime dive.’ Dr. Earle and Wyland also had the rare opportunity to be escorted by a NOAA specialist to view endangered Hawaiian monk seals. With only approximately 1100 individuals left, The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument offers these gentle creatures a sanctuary in which they can thrive.

Photo Credit: Amanda Meyer, USFWS

The wall of ‘Charlie Barracks’ on Midway now boasts a mural by Wyland, who worked his magic there during the visit. Dr. Earle took brush in hand to contribute her artistic skills to the wall as well, leaving a remembrance of this visit to the island for future generations. Click here for a time lapse video of Wyland at work. In partnership with the Co-trustee agencies of the Monument including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and the State of Hawaiʻi in addition to the U.S. Forest Service, the Wyland Foundation and author/photographer Susan Middleton, Dr. Earle’s goal for the expedition was to promote environmental education, raise awareness of critical issues and illuminate the success stories that have helped wildlife thrive in the ocean and island marine ecosystems of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.”We’re taking care of ourselves by taking care of nature. Places like this are calls for hope and sources of inspiration. Whatever it takes, we all can give back. We can try to leave the world a better place and it’s happening on Midway.” said Dr. Earle.

Feature photo of Dr. Earle and Wisdom (c) Susan Middleton


Permit Number: PMNM-2012-011

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