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How to Visit Hawaii's Papahanaumokuakea, the USA's Newest UNESCO Site

August 18, 2010 at 10:31 AM | by | Comment (1)

There’s a new spot to add to your Hawaii itinerary, but you might not be able to visit it too easily. Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is one of the world’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and it’s the first in the United States in around 15 years. The only downer is that it’s pretty much off limits to tourists unless you’re able to join up with an education or research group.

The area is found in and around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but you won't find any tiki torches or umbrella drinks here. That’s why monk seals, sharks, corals, and all kinds of other sea life are free to call it home. Papahanaumokuakea is so important that it was actually recognized by the United Nations for two reasons—for both cultural and natural significance.

If you want to visit, you’ll have to shell out around $5,000 to score a seat on a charter airplane, and you’ll also have to sign up for a tour with an ecological group. There’s permits, regulations, and other government paperwork to ensure that the area stays protected for future generations.

You’re welcome to fill out a permit, but with a thirty-day public review period your chances still might be close to none. Just make sure you know why you’re going—snorkeling doesn’t count—as research, education, conservation, Native Hawaiian practice, and special ocean use are the only options. Recreational permits are allowed for visits to Midway Atoll, but you better hurry up, as the deadline to visit this upcoming winter is September 1.

Related Stories:
· Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument [Official Site]
· Papahanaumokuakea: Hawaii's New UNESCO Site a Marine Wonderland [SF Gate via Seattle PI]
· Hawaii Travel coverage [Jaunted]

[Photo from Tern Island: angrysunbird]

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Visiting Midway Atoll

Unfortunately the above information is not quite accurate. While it is challenging to visit most of the islands that make up the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, it is fairly easy to visit Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge part of the monument. The downside is that currently (as the article mentions) there is only one charter airline that flies out of Honolulu, so unless you have your own plane you will have to pay a premium to get there. For the 2011 season air costs have gone up as the FWS is no longer able to subsidize return flight costs. So it looks like a week long visit to Midway will actually cost about $7000 (includes meals, lodging, and daily refuge visitor fees). You do not "have to sign up with a tour group to go although that is how most people do travel to Midway due to the strict permit requirements. Anyone can apply to visit Midway. In 2009/10 Duke University and the University of Hawaii, Hilo both had student groups that visited Midway. In 2009 a group of Ham Radio enthusiasts went. The tour groups simply provide a mechanism for all who may want to go to visit Midway without having to organize and get permits for your own travel. Finally September 1st is not the last opportunity to visit Midway Atoll in 2010. The refuge visitor program reopens in November of 2010 when the albatross start returning and remains open until August of 2011. Each year the visitor program closes during the "bird window" August - November. This is the time of year when the albatross are gone from Midway and the refuge can get big projects done since it is possible to drive heavy equipment around without fear of injuring or moving birds. There are a few other ways to visit the Monument. The USFWS places volunteers on three of the islands (French Frigate Shoals, Laysan, Midway) year-round. Volunteers are from many different backgrounds and of all ages. The only caveat is that you must be able to volunteer for three months. Kure Atoll is owned by the state of Hawaii and in 2010 just established a year-round field camp which also hires volunteers and occasionally paid workers. NOAA has a marine debris removal project each summer and hires a team each year. NMFS has monk seal monitoring teams in place on all of the islands during the summer and each year typically hires about 15 persons seasonally through JIMAR at U of Hawaii. Also each year the monument accepts applications for an all expenses paid "Educators" trip to Midway Atoll. This year there were about 70 applications for 12 spots. They accept applications in Dec/Jan for the June program. You can learn more about that program at http://papahanaumokuakea.gov/education/teachers_midway.html For some great information and photos written by previous visitors and guides see: http://www.redbubble.com/people/whalegeek/writing/5400046-wisdom-returns-to-midway-atoll http://naturefinder.blogspot.com/2010/04/green-sea-turtle-tracking-on-midway.html http://naturefinder.blogspot.com/2009/05/habitat-restoration-is-for-birds-at.html

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