A Love Story on Midway Island

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Midway Atoll is a 2.4-square-mile atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with three islands covering 1,549 acres. It's small, remote, and an essential landing strip for giant seabirds. More than three million of them plop down on the islands every year, which means it's crowded, especially when the birds decide to lay their eggs. Virtually every square foot has a nest.

Three species of albatross, of which the most prominent is the Laysan albatross—with 450,000 nesting pairs, take up space on the island every winter. Laysans are big birds, with roughly six-foot wingspans. They stay, more or less, for nine months. They are monogamous, for the most part, and can live for up to 40 years. After the pairs land in October or November, they spend some time dancing and clicking and deciding on a nest before laying an egg. The male and female take turns incubating the egg for about two months, fly off on a series of epic journeys to find food for their young over the course of four or five months, and then leave the youngsters alone so they can fledge in June or July.

Photographer and filmmaker Chris Jordan stepped into this scene—carefully, of course—and stayed for a couple weeks. It affected him in a profound way. That's because, as you've probably heard and seen, a lot of the chicks die with large amounts of plastic in their stomachs. Their parents inadvertently scoop up the debris while feeding on squid and other fish at the top of the Pacific Ocean, and regurgitate the plastic into the youngsters' mouths. Eventually, Jordan decided to make a movie called Midway, and he wants to go back. He's hoping to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter to finish his project. We checked in with him to find out a little bit more about his motivation.

Laysan albatross and chick. Photo: Chris Jordan

Do you have a favorite photograph of an albatross chick?
The two weeks we spent photographing the hatching chicks on Midway was one of the most beautiful experiences of my whole life. The mother albatrosses allowed us so close to their hatching babies that in one case, my lens was right in the nest and the mother’s wing was resting on my head.

Laysan albatross and chick. Photo: Chris Jordan

Albatrosses are as big as eagles, with powerful beaks that could rip your face off if they decided to. But they trusted us to come literally within a few inches of their hatching babies with our cameras, displaying an elegance and grace that was incredible to behold. I will never forget the intimacy of that experience.

Laysan albatross and chick. Photo: Chris Jordan

Was there a specific moment when you decided to make the film?
The moment I knew I had to push deeper into the story of Midway was when I was visiting a girls’ school in Brisbane, Australia, showing my photographs of the plastic-filled birds. At the end of my talk, one of the teachers broke down weeping in front of her whole school. I stood there frozen, with my heart breaking, as tears poured down her face and her voice shook with horror and grief, and she asked me “How do we get to hope from here?” Her question resonated for me like a temple bell on so many levels, and I didn’t have an answer. I think maybe that’s a question we are all holding right now, as the news about the health of our world gets worse every day, and our leaders become more and more lost and paralyzed. I knew I had to go back to Midway and stand in the fire of that question until I had something to offer that teacher. The result has been a three-year project that has changed my life at the very core. 

What have scientists told you about what the plastic does to the Albatross chicks?
That is complex because albatross chicks have a high natural mortality rate, and it is difficult to determine in a particular case whether a chick died from plastic or from other causes. For example, if two parent albatrosses leave their nest for five days in search of food, their chick may be subjected to dehydrating heat, or rain storms that cause hypothermia. If the baby dies during that time, who can say what was the exact cause of death, and whether the 22 plastic bottle caps in its stomach had a contributing effect? All that can be said with certainty is that the plastic is increasing the mortality of the albatross chicks by an unknown factor.

But personally, I am not so much interested in saving the albatross as I am in receiving the urgent alarm signal they are sending us about the state of our world. The birds on Midway are like messengers, the canary in the coal mine. When the canary dies, the miners don’t run over and try to save the canary— they receive the message that bird just gave its life delivering, and then act quickly to save themselves. That approach resonates with me because it doesn’t view the birds as helpless victims that we passively observe; it places a duty on us to receive their message, and be changed by it (or not). 

What do you hope the end result of the movie will be?
I believe the story of Midway Island offers a profound metaphor for our time, like an epic piece of literature that carries symbolism and archetype on multiple levels. A lot of smart people are saying that what humanity needs right now is a shift in our story, and my own theory is that we need a new love story—a real one that we can believe in, and that includes us all. First-world culture has lost its connection with a deeply felt reverence for the miracle of our life, and for our sacred place in the great mystery. Being on Pihemanu (the Hawaiian name for Midway) is like standing on a razor’s edge between darkness and light, paradise and hell, the past and the future; it is a focused microcosm of our world, where horror meets innocence, grief meets joy, birth meets death, all wrapped in an envelope of violent history and stunning natural beauty that overwhelms the senses and transforms the mind. I don’t hold any specific hopes for the end result of my project; my fiduciary duty runs to the story itself, and I consider it my job to honor that story with the highest quality piece of visual poetry that can be achieved with the resources I have available to me. And once I tell that story, my role is done, and that is where the viewer’s responsibility begins.

For more on the Midway Film Project by Chris Jordan, check out Kickstarter.

H/T: @Revkin

 —Joe Spring

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