Of Coconuts and Crabs – Christmas Island & Cocos Keeling Island

Christmas and Cocos are like two distant cousins, sharing a similar origin and history, but growing up into very different characters with very different physical appearance.

Both are volcanic in origin, but whereas Christmas Island sits atop an extinct volcano, Cocos are two sand atolls and 27 coral islands arranged around a horseshoe-shaped lagoon.

Christmas Island rises up to 360m and is topped with lush green rainforest, surrounded by an inhospitable coastline of jagged rocks and cliff faces falling vertically into the ocean. A few isolated beaches, and a single cove present the only place where a boat can safely land.

By contrast, the islands around Cocos lagoon rise just 5m above sea level, and the vista in every direction is that of ‘deserted tropical paradise’: an azure ocean, lapping on coconut-fringed, white sandy beaches.

Not coincidentally, both were colonised in order to be exploited by the same family of Scots using indentured labour from Singapore and Malaysia. First in 1820, John Clunies-Ross established a coconut plantation on the Cocos Islands, and later, his grandson established Settlement on Christmas Island to exploit the timber reserves in support of the coconut plantation.

CHRISTMAS ISLAND

Christmas Island rises 3,000m from the sea floor of the Java Trench, 500kms to the south of Java and its Indonesian capital Jakarta. Subject to the northwest monsoon in September and October, its climate and vegetation is not dissimilar to that of Java.

The island is covered in a mix of tropical and temperate rainforest to the edge of its rocky shore, which makes it the perfect breeding place for large numbers of migratory seabirds. Each species finds their own preferred spot, whether that’s at the top of the dense canopy, or in a huddle of stones by the shoreline.

A unique part of this forest, called The Dales, where water runs continuously down three valleys, provides the perfect damp habitat for land crabs, and it is where most of the island’s millions of land crabs live.

CRABS

Christmas Island is perhaps most famous for its population of red land crabs. It’s currently estimated at 60 million and is the reason why the rainforest floor is just bare mud, completely devoid of leaf litter – the crabs eat it all. One of the many reasons to visit Christmas Island is to behold the amazing sight of these 60 million crustaceans collectively coming out of the forest and heading to the sea on their annual migration.

The island is in fact home to over a dozen land crab species, and its second most notorious crab, noted for its size, rather than its population, is the Robber Crab. Named for its ability to stealthily drag off and consume anything that happens to be left unattended for just a moment, it’s known elsewhere in the Pacific as the coconut crab, for its ability to climb trees and steal coconuts.

BIRDLIFE

Christmas Island also has its share of endemic as well as migratory birds. Three species of frigatebird nest on the island, with up to 50 nests in a single tree. The Christmas Island Frigate, the largest Frigatebird at up to 1m long, is endemic to the Island.

Likewise, the Abbotts Booby, the world’s rarest Booby, nests only on Christmas Island, choosing spots high up in the forest canopy. The Red Footed Booby is a colonial nester, choosing trees on the shore terraces, whereas the Brown Booby nests on the ground, on what amounts to little more than a huddle of sticks and stones.

Other birds only found on Christmas Island include the Goshawk, a bird of prey found only in the forests, the Hawk-Owl, Thrush and Imperial Pigeon.

MARINE LIFE

Almost the complete coastline of Christmas has a narrow coral reef before the island’s volcanic wall plunges to unimaginable depths.

The 88 species of corals in these shallower waters, fed rich nutrients from the deep-water upwelling and the abundant sunlight, grow to sizes not often seen elsewhere. The lack of urban run-off and human visitors ensures that they remain in absolute pristine condition.

This pristine environment is home to millions of reef dwelling fish; over 650 species have been noted, and in the deeper water, pelagics: tiger sharks, manta rays and whale sharks come very close to the shore.

Divers are able to explore the reefs around Christmas Island all year round. Wet’n’Dry Adventure’s dive boat leaves Flying Fish Cove at Settlement twice each day for a double dive. There are reefs, caverns and walls to explore, and many divers plan their trip around the Red Crab migration, as that gives the best chance of encountering the whale sharks which come to feast on the crab spawn.

RED CRAB MIGRATION

There are many natural wonders to observe on Christmas Island, the most famous being the annual Red Crab migration, when the Red Crabs, in their millions, collectively head down to their ‘local beach’ to release their eggs into the outgoing tide.

The whole event is dependent on there being enough rain to keep the crabs moist on their epic journey, and on the phase of the moon. The crabs only release their eggs just after the turn of the high tide when the moon is in its final quarter and the waves are at their lowest. This gives them the best chance of standing in the shallows on the shoreline without being washed away, and shimmying their precious payload of eggs into the out-going waters where they will be carried by the tide to spawn in the waters off Christmas Island.

The males head off first, at a steady 1km per day, to dig a burrow close to the shore about 5km from their forest home, and the females follow them shortly after. After mating in the burrow, they wait for exactly the right moment to head down the beach to the ocean.

Not surprisingly, with 60 million crabs on the move, the island’s human inhabitants are on high alert for the duration of the migration. Some roads are closed to vehicles, but on the big night itself when the crabs shake their eggs into the sea, visitors and locals alike turn out to experience the amazing event.

Once out in the ocean, the eggs turn to larvae and then into tiny red crabs (about the size of a child’s fingernail). They are washed up on the island’s beaches 6 weeks later to make the 5km journey back into the wet interior on their own.

The migration takes place in the last quarter of the moon in either October, November or December, and the best chance of working out exactly when it will be, is by following the Parks Australia website.

EXPLORING CHRISTMAS ISLAND

For bird enthusiasts, the main event on the Christmas Island calendar is Bird’n’Nature Week, timed around National Threatened Species Day.

Bird scientists flock to the island around this time, and interested amateurs are able to learn about – and join in with – current projects by attending rainforest walks, talks and seminars.

Christmas Island’s own Indian Ocean Adventures takes small group tours to explore many of the nature features of Christmas Island: the Grotto, the caves, the coastal blow holes, the remote beaches, and The Dales.

Such is the diversity of the island’s natural beauty: its wildlife, birdlife and diverse natural landscapes, that many internationally renowned photographers organise annual ‘photo safaris’ to Christmas Island.

Visitors can explore Christmas Island independently all year round. The impressive Daniel Rue Caves can be explored without a guide and are within walking distance of Settlement. The beaches and blow-holes are accessible via hire car and short walk – as are the Dales; and there are many marked walking trails through the forests.

COCOS KEELING ISLAND

Christmas Island’s closest Indian Ocean neighbour, the Cocos Keeling Island, lie just 1,000km to the west, and were likewise settled to be exploited rather than admired for the tropical paradise it is now.

The Scottish Captain John Clunies-Ross converted Cocos into a coconut plantation using Malay labour, establishing his own personal fiefdom on the island, even issuing the currency, which could only be redeemed in his general store.

Strategically positioned midway between the Maldives and Australia, Cocos provided an ideal location for an early telegraph station in 1901, and as a result became the site of the Battle of Cocos, one of the first naval battles of WW1. In WW2, two airstrips were built and Cocos became an important airbase for the re-invasion and liberation of Malaysia and Singapore.

In the 1970’s the Australian government became increasingly dissatisfied with the way the Clunies-Ross family were still running the island as a feudal ‘micro-
nation’, and forced the sale of Cocos to the Commonwealth. The Malay community is still there today, as are the rows of coconut trees across most of the islands, but the coconuts are no longer harvested commercially, and lay rotting where they fall.

Cocos’ main business today is tourism and though home to a population of just 600 people, there’s plenty to do both on the islands and in and on the lagoon.

ACTIVITIES AROUND THE LAGOON

The climate on Cocos is moderated by the southeast trade winds from December through to August, and this combined with accessible and shallow areas of the lagoon make it a mecca for kite-surfers. Kitesurfing lessons are available at Zephyr Tours.

A great way to explore the lagoon and some of the uninhabited islands is via motorised kayak. Conventional ‘self-powered’ kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) are also available for hire, allowing you to explore the lagoon and islands at your own pace.

The local Cocos Islands Adventure Tours can put together a custom itinerary as well: a trip across the glassy surface of the lagoon, a trip up to the WW1 lookout point with a full historical narrative, bird watching, a leisurely drift snorkel through a reef fish-filled channel, and lunch in a deserted ‘pondok’ (or weekend shack).

Most accommodation options provide bicycles, allowing you to explore the whole of West Island which is just 10km long and less than 1km wide. The best snorkelling spots are in the south, and the best beach – ‘Trannies Beach’ – is in the north.

The Cocos Birds and Beaches Tour runs at dawn and dusk, when many of the birds leave their nests to feed at sea, often making several trips if they have young chicks to feed. Over fifty species of birds live at Cocos, or stopover here to breed.

DIVING ON COCOS

Dive boat departs almost daily for a full day’s diving and snorkelling at a couple of the many natural spots dotted around the lagoon. Sites include the Cabbage Patch with its large golden-yellow lettuce mono-corals 6-20m across; Sandshute, where white-tipped reef sharks snooze; and Rose Wall, with its 16-35m floor-to-ceiling coral.

Thanks to man’s habit of dumping at sea, there are two other dives sites in the lagoon’s shallow waters, named Cannons and Cables. In addition to historic junk (cannons and telegraph cables), there are plenty of reef fish, including reef sharks, turtles and occasionally a manatee to be found at these sites.

The lagoon has its own wreck which is both a snorkelling and dive site, and a very special reef called Service Station, where manta rays often stop by in the afternoon to be cleaned by the local damsels. With just 9 metres to the clean, sandy seabed, the crystal clear waters provide one of the most relaxed manta cleaning station dives, accessible even to novice scuba divers.

A favourite surface interval activity for divers is a high speed drift-snorkel along The Rip – a channel between two islands, where at the right time of the tide, the water current carries snorkellers from the ocean to the Lagoon in a high speed ride over reef sharks and bumphead parrotfish grazing on the coral algae below.

Usually encountered during a day’s diving at Cocos is a pod of spinner dolphins. Often they join the dive boat to porpoise through the bow wave, and then hang around long enough for divers to join them.

LAND BASED ACTIVITIES

The aptly named Home Island is home to the Malay Community. A land tour taking in historical and cultural sites also shares with visitors the art of coconut husking, basket weaving and coconut oil production, and concludes with a delicious meal prepared by local artisans.

No eco-trip to Cocos would be complete without a visit to the Big Barge Art Centre. This unique art gallery is in a barge nestled in the bush, just metres from the Indian Ocean. The art here is inspired by, and made from, the flotsam and jetsam that have washed up on Coco’s distant shore.

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