Last Updated on November 19, 2022 by Matt

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is found in the north Pacific Ocean, pretty much in the middle of the ocean between the east coast of the USA and west coast of Japan, and 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu.

Midway Atoll is two islands combined surrounded by a fringing reef. There is a larger populated island which is called Sand Island and encompasses three square miles; a smaller island, populated only by wildlife, is called Eastern Island. The islands are famed for the huge number of seabirds found there. 

Midway Islands

There is a lot of history associated with the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. In this article we will give a brief overview of these islands and some of the amazing wildlife that is found there. 


The history of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is very rich. Being part of the Hawaiin Island chain, the first visitors to this remote isle were Polynesian voyagers. There isn’t any physical evidence of these visits, but oral histories remember distant low lying island housing abundant seabirds and turtles. They were ‘discovered’ by the western world in 1859 and the USA soon took control after this. It became the final link in a global telegraph system in 1903. In the 1930s it became a staging site for Pan Am clippers crossing the Pacific Ocean, and from 1941 until 1993 it housed a US military naval base. At its height the naval base held over 5,000 occupants. 

In 1996 President Clinton signed Midway from the military over to the Department of the Interior, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now manages the reserve. 

Due to the location of Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it was considered second only to Pearl Harbor in importance to the defense of the western coast of the USA during World War 2. 

On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, and later that day Midway was also attacked by two destroyers. This attack on Midway was repulsed, giving the USA their first victory of the war. On June 4 1942, a major battle took place near Midway which resulted in a massive defeat for the Japanese Navy, and is considered the beginning of the end of Japanese control in the Pacific. 

Midway Atoll was also of importance in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, where it was an important staging area, and thousands of troops on ships and aircraft stopped there for refueling and repairs. 

The Battle of Midway National Memorial is found on the island.


Not only does Midway Atoll have a fascinating history, but it is a National Wildlife Refuge for a reason. The atoll is a critical habitat for seabirds in the central Pacific Ocean, and is a breeding habitat for 17 different seabird species. The island houses 70% of the global population of Laysan albatross, along with 39% percent of the world’s population of black-footed albatross. There have also been sightings of the short-tailed albatross, of which only 2,200 animals now exist. 

Laysan Albatross Midway Atoll

Laysan Albatrosses breeding on Midway Island

This is only on land, there is also a plethora of marine species found surrounding the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals raise their pups on the beaches, finding food such as fish and crustaceans plentiful in the surrounding reef.

There is a local population of around 300 spinner dolphins, which are named after their amazing spinning leaps from the water that need to be seen to be believed. 

Green sea turtles can also be found nesting on the beaches, and are common in the offshore waters. They can also be seen commonly in the nearshore waters of the lagoon.

Over 250 species of fish can be found amongst the reef surrounding the atoll, including masked angelfish, crosshatch triggerfish, parrotfish, groupers, hogfish, tangs, moray eels, frogfish, scorpionfish, anthias, and many more. There are also countless invertebrates species, with sessile animals such as soft coral, SPS and LPS corals, and sponges in abundance. Mollusks can be found in great numbers, with brilliantly colored nudibranchs being seen, along with incredible cuttlefish and octopus. 


Unfortunately it hasn’t been possible to visit the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge for a number of years now. This is due to there being budgetary restrictions within the US Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the very remote location of the atoll.

There are around 40 permanent residents on the larger Sand Island, comprising the refuge staff members, volunteers, and contractors. Volunteering opportunities come up every so often, but require a big time investment, as volunteers work a full week for 6 months stints!

If and when the island is opened again to the public it is expected that huge demand will be there to experience the amazing wildlife of the atoll and the numerous diving opportunities there are. Many shipwrecks are there to be explored, many from WW2.

Midway Atoll Shipwreck

USS Macaw, a World War II submarine rescue ship that sank in February 1944 near Midway Atoll. Credit: NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research (Flickr)

You may also like our guides to the Komodo National Park and Banco Chinchorro.

Featured Image Credit: Forest and Kim Starr (Flickr)

About the author

Coral Realm

Leave a Comment