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Life In A Fishbowl

You travel all the way to Midway to escape the rat race, only to find that Midway has been trying to do the same thing for years.

Its new caretakers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, finally succeeded earlier this summer, killing the last rat and ending decades of vermin infestation that wreaked havoc on this remote, mid-Pacific Ocean atoll’s incredible seabird population.

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You pick up all sorts of interesting tidbits during a seven-day stay here. You have left the rat race far behind, but you’ve landed in a fishbowl.

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Sand Island, the only populated island within the five-mile ring of coral that makes up Midway Atoll, encompasses only 1,700 acres, or about three square miles. Hardly anything anyone says or does goes unnoticed.

“It’s wonderful here, but it can be a real pain in the butt, too, because it is a real ‘Peyton Place’ at times,” proclaims Heidi Auman, 31, a biologist who has lived here eight years.

That it may be, but if you come for only a week, you’re likely to enjoy the “Days of Your Lives.”

That is, if you know what you’re getting into. . . .

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“We do get guests out here who say, ‘Where can I rent a car? Where can I get my hair done or my nails done? Is there room service?’ Well, that’s not what a national wildlife refuge is all about,” Auman says.

To be sure, a wildlife refuge is all about wildlife, and you’ll find plenty here. Midway is home to millions of sea birds; its waters are teeming with fish. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble on a “golden gooney,” or short-tailed albatross. A federally endangered species, there are only about 700 left in the world.

Midway’s most beautiful beaches--and all are breathtakingly beautiful--are frequented by endangered Hawaiian monk seals, and thus off-limits to you because monk seals aren’t nearly as thrilled by your presence as you are by theirs.

Only about 1,300 of these blubbery mammals remain, and about 65 call Midway home. Fourteen were born here this year, a Midway record that has the scientific community glowing with pride.

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As is the case at all wildlife refuges, you’re asked to give Midway’s more fragile critters lots of space. “Don’t be gooney about wildlife,” you’re told.

Midway, however, is unlike any other refuge.

There is no room service, but there are rooms--and comfortable ones at that.

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The same barracks that housed the military for more than 50 years after Naval Air Station Midway was commissioned on Aug. 1, 1941, have been renovated--complete with air-conditioning, TVs and telephones--and now house fishermen, scuba divers and eco-tourists.

The pipes are old and external, but the water’s clean and powerful enough to make you presentable, after a long, hot day afield, for a trip to the mall.

Midway Mall was built more than 50 years ago for servicemen, and remains for residents and guests. It has no Macy’s or Nordstrom, but it does have a ship’s store, a gift shop, a movie house, a bowling alley and the ever-popular All Hands Club. This musty old pub rocked during the Navy’s occupation, when up to 5,000 people were crammed inside the fishbowl.

Now only about 200 people live here and only 100 guests are allowed at a given time. The All Hands Club rarely rocks, but it still serves pizza and cold beer and thus remains a great place to just sit and unwind, or to recount the day’s activities over a game of pool.

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Not far from the All Hands Club is the mess hall, where most residents and guests share a dining experience unlike any back home. Bacon and eggs, hot dogs, hamburgers and spaghetti are standard fare. But so is curry hot enough to leave you red in the face and grasping for water.

The curry dishes are courtesy of Sri Lankan chefs. The Navy used them and other foreign nationals to handle all of its nonmilitary chores, including cooking. The new proprietors--Midway since 1996 has been run jointly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Midway Phoenix Corp. of Cartersville, Ga.--is keeping them on to keep things spicy inside the fishbowl.

There is, however, an escape from what some might consider culinary hell. It’s called the Clipper House. Midway Phoenix Corp., which maintains the island’s infrastructure in return for tourism profits, built the restaurant atop a powdery white-sand bluff, overlooking a turquoise lagoon.

You’re often escorted to the door by snowy white terns. Inside, you’re served fine wine and sumptuous dishes prepared by a French chef flown in after signing a three-year contract on the assumption he’d be working in Hawaii, not on a plot of sand at the northern end of a long chain of unpopulated and extremely remote islands.

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Barring a change of heart, the chef and his wife are leaping out of the fishbowl as soon as the contract expires.

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Living on a land mass not much bigger than the neighborhood country club, three hours by jet to the nearest civilization (Oahu, which is also an island), surely is not for everyone.

As one former serviceman said in a recent letter to The Times: “I heartily recommend a visit to Midway, not just for the natural wonders, but for its place in World War II history. Just don’t stay too long. After many months, the graceful, statuesque albatrosses begin to look very attractive.”

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Auman and some of the foreign nationals have been here the longest. She was here four years during the transition as the Navy began its pullout, and four since Midway opened to the public.

She knows every inch of both Sand and unpopulated Eastern Island and has an intimate relationship with albatrosses. She has banded nearly 100,000 of them as part of her research. She has published a paper on the effect ingested plastic has had on the birds, and it’s considerable.

She calls the albatrosses “the soul of the island,” and the other residents agree. But whereas most of the other residents are compelled to get away from them and off the island every chance they get, Auman is not among them and often spends her vacations here.

Has she been in the fishbowl too long?

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“I don’t even think I could function in a big city,” she says. “This is my reality. I don’t know any other way and I love living here passionately.

“All the things I like to do are here . . . fishing, diving, snorkeling. . . . Besides, I’m horrified to drive in traffic now. The last time I went into Honolulu I started freaking out in a crowded elevator. Everybody was in my personal space. I didn’t know anybody.

“Here, my personal space boundaries are so much bigger, and it’s safe out here. I don’t lock my door, I don’t look over my shoulder at night, I don’t have to carry my keys in my fist.

“I do miss a lot of things. I miss good pizza and fresh fruit. I miss my cat. I’m living in a run-down barracks room. I’m not married. I don’t have a house. I don’t have a car, and my freedom is limited to parts of the island.

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“Still, I enjoy this lifestyle and I like being a big fish in a small pond. I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”

Especially now that the rats are gone.

--Information on Midway packages can be obtained through Destination: Midway, at (808) 325-5000 or https://www.fishdive.com.

* FISH REPORT, Page 13

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