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Hawaii: Lots to see at newly expanded Papahanaumokuakea national monument, but good luck trying to get there

Hawaii: Lots to see at newly expanded Papahanaumokuakea national monument, but good luck trying to get there
Marine biologists recently discovered a new species of butterflyfish in the deep waters of the reefs of the newly expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. (Greg McFall / NOAA)

Tiny Midway Atoll northwest of Hawaii may indeed be what a tour operator describes as a "magical" destination, but the chances of travelers getting there anytime soon are pretty slim.

It's part of the unpronounceable Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which President Obama expanded Aug. 26 to create the largest protected place on Earth. At 582,578 miles, the national monument made up of a few little islands and the Pacific Ocean covers an area larger than California, Montana and Texas combined.

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Laysan albatrosses nest outside former military barracks on Midway's Sand Island.
Laysan albatrosses nest outside former military barracks on Midway's Sand Island. (Mark Grantham)

The atoll's coastal waters are home to abundant and sometimes rare wildlife. For example, a new species of butterflyfish was recently discovered there.

And if you want to visit? Well, it's complicated.

Galapagos Travel based in Aptos, Calif., used to provide charter flights from Honolulu (about 1,300 miles away) to Midway for seven-day adventures. Future tours are on hold due to budget cuts by the federal government.

Endangered Hawaiian monk seals live in the protected waters of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
Endangered Hawaiian monk seals live in the protected waters of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. (Mark Grantham)

"It's the only refuge [the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service] manages that has overnight accommodations," Galapagos Travel owner Mark Grantham says.

"It's very nicely refurbished military barracks … turned into suites," he continues. But it's now closed.

The Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is a bird-watcher’s paradise, full of rare and endangered species. The refuge also includes the Battle of Midway National Memorial, which commemorates the decisive World War II victory for the Allies in 1942.

Three varieties of albatross appear on Midway Atoll. More than 3 million seabirds live in the bird-watchers' paradise about 1,300 miles from Honolulu, but access to the wildlife refuge and marine sanctuary are severely restricted.
Three varieties of albatross appear on Midway Atoll. More than 3 million seabirds live in the bird-watchers' paradise about 1,300 miles from Honolulu, but access to the wildlife refuge and marine sanctuary are severely restricted. (Mark Grantham)

With visitor programs suspended, volunteering may be one way for travelers to see the islands.

Various opportunities on obscure outposts like the Kure Atoll Seabird Sanctuary and Laysan and Tern islands are occasionally available on the monument's website.

For projects on the Midway Atoll, travel dates are determined by the schedule for supply planes to fly out from Honolulu. Grantham will travel to the atoll in December to help with the annual albatross count. Due to flight schedules, he'll be there for three weeks. That, he says, is a blessing.

"It's the most magical wildlife place I've ever been," he said.

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