Christmas Island is one of Australia’s 7 external territories. At 2,6ookms northwest of Perth and just 350km south of Java, it’s reasonable to wonder why it’s part of Australia at all. The short answer – history.
Named by Captain William Mynors of the English East India Company who sailed by on Christmas Day 1643, it was another 45 years before the first recorded visit to the island, by none other than the famous privateer William Dampier in 1688. His visit was accidental – his ship was blown off course heading to Cocos Islands – and it must have been an underwhelming experience. Two crewman went ashore and did …. nothing.
Fast forward another 170 years and in 1857 the first attempt was made by explorers to reach the island’s summit. They failed and it was not until the 1870s that steps to survey the island commenced. Still it remained uninhabited and unclaimed. But in 1887 rock samples were found to contain almost pure phosphate of lime and with the discovery of something of commercial value, CI was promptly annexed by the British Crown in June 1888.
Phosphate mining began in 1899 using indentured labour from Singapore, British Malaya and China.
CI was occupied by the Japanese in WWII and returned to British control as part of the Crown Colony of Singapore at the end of the war. With the UK shedding its colonies in the post war period, Singapore gained self-governance in 1959 and part of the deal was the transfer of CI to Australia, which paid $20m in compensation to Singapore for its loss of revenue from the phosphate reserves.
And that is how CI became part of Australia.
These days it’s known for four things: its remarkable endemic biodiversity, the red crab migration, scuba diving and immigration detention. More on each of them later.
There is no evidence the island was ever occupied before the British came to mine the island, and despite its proximity to Indonesia, the cultural and ethnic influences reflect the ethnicities of those who came for the mining.
Less than 40% of the population is Australian born, and there is a vibrant Malay and Chinese community. Lucky us – CI isn’t renowned for its food scene, but what is here is very good Malaysian, Sichuan and Cantonese food. And for reasons we still don’t quite understand, the whole island is a duty free port, so alcohol is cheap. In fact, it’s cheaper to buy here and take home than to buy duty free back in Perth.
CI is the flat summit of an extinct underwater volcano. 300 metres above sea level at its highest point, the mountain descends steeply down for another 4,200 metres under the water.
63% of the island is national park, most of it dense tropical forest.
The steep granite and basalt topography means that whilst there are a few sandy coves scattered around the island’s perimeter, there are no mile-long picture postcard beaches. If you want to lie on bleached white sand under a waving palm tree, this is not the place for you.
But the near vertical drop offs and year-round warm water temperatures mean great coral walls and a pleasing diversity of marine life literally just offshore. And the dense forest and lack of agriculture mean minimal run off so water clarity is remarkable.
We did a total of 10 dives, all at most 15 minutes by boat from Flying Fish Cove. Water temperature was consistently 27 degrees, visibility up to 25 metres. Most were gentle drift dives and there was plenty to see: hard and soft corals, a variety of tropical fish, moray and spotted eels, octopus, turtles, white tipped reef sharks and huge trevalla.
Here’s a few underwater shots taken by a fellow diver who generously shared some of his photos with us for the blog.
On one magical dive we drifted along for what seemed like forever in a cloud of batfish.
Here is John contemplating whether there is more to life than this.
There were plenty of reef sharks too.
We dived with Wet and Dry Adventures, a fantastic dive operation run by Hama, who came to CI for 3 days and has stayed 25 years and counting! He takes a maximum of 6 divers, and generally we were only 4. With only one other dive operator on the island and dozens of great sites, we never saw other divers. A truly unspoilt experience.
There’s lots to see above the water line as well.
On the south-western coast, rough seas and porous limestone coast combine to create an impressive band of blowholes.
And a little inland is Hughs Dale Waterfall. A slippery walk in to the falls winds past groves of beautiful Tahitian chestnut trees encased in strangler figs.
The waterfall itself is quite small, but is revered by the island’s Chinese population as it is considered the ‘centre of the earth’s water universe’ with Feng Shui devotees believing it to be one of the most spiritual places on the planet.
But Christmas Island’s biggest tourist attraction is the red crab migration.
Unique to CI, these land-based crabs live in moist burrows at the base of trees in the forested interior of the island. They breathe air and they can’t swim. The sea is not their friend, but by some quirk of evolution, is vital to their breeding cycle.
Red crabs spawn on the receding high tide during the last quarter of the moon following the first rains of the monsoon. Sounds a bit like a middle-ages coven gathering, but it really is that precise. And what is truly remarkable is that the crabs won’t leave the forest before that first downpour, but then seem to know how long it is until the full moon. If the rains come late in the lunar cycle, the crabs will move fast, and if the rains are too close to the end of the cycle, they will wait until the following month.
This means predicting the migration is a bit tricky. Spawning is usually in either late November or late December but can be as late as January, with the migration starting a few weeks earlier depending on the timing of the rains. As we were to be there for the first week of November, we knew we might be a bit early to see anything at all.
We were due to fly to CI on 28 October but on the previous afternoon we were advised the flight was cancelled due to weather and would not fly until 30 October. Our irritation turned to celebration when we discovered that this was indeed that first downpour which would trigger this year’s migration.
Once it starts, it’s immediately full on. We saw our first crabs before even leaving the airport carpark.
Ordinarily well ensconced in burrows in the dense forest, the crabs come pouring out into the open.
They stream across the roads regardless of traffic.
Safeguarding the crabs during the migration is taken seriously by both Parks Australia and the locals. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost all of the roads on the island are closed so the crabs can cross in safety.
In many places you can drive as far as a temporary barrier and then walk among the crabs.
The subtle sound of all those nippers marching purposefully toward their goal is surreal. You wouldn’t hear one on its own, but with thousands of them on the move, it is quite audible.
Where roads are open, signs instruct drivers to avoid running over the crabs and we frequently saw situations where a passenger walked ahead of a slow-moving vehicle sweeping the crabs out of the car’s path with a garden rake. At the airport, a worker rakes the crabs off the runaway before each arrival and departure. Fortunately for staff, there’s usually only one flight per day.
Inevitably, crabs do get squashed. This brings out families of feral chickens who live in the forest, to feast on the dead crabs. Finally we can answer the old question, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’.
Driving becomes a slow-motion slalom dodging crabs and poultry.
And then there are the robber crabs. Unlike the red crabs, these bad boys are all claw. Growing up to 4kg and with a leg span of 80cm, they are believed to be the largest terrestrial arthropod on earth.
Like the chickens, they emerge from the forest to predate the dead crabs, but they also attack live ones.
They are a type of coconut crab and are found across the South Pacific, but only here do they reach full size. That’s because they are considered quite tasty and therefore get caught for food in other countries, but catching them is prohibited here. They are fully protected and with no natural predators, they can live for over 50 years. They will steal virtually anything, hence their name, including shoes, bags and cameras. They have an excellent sense of smell and will break into eskies and food containers.
Road signs warn against driving over them, but not only because the wildlife is protected. When threatened, the robber crabs raise their front claws, which are so strong they will damage the under carriage of a vehicle passing over them, even 4WDs.
Fun fact: Like hermit crabs, robber crabs are born without a hard exterior and the juveniles initially occupy salvaged shells. We found this young one in the forest.
Unlike hermit crabs, however, as adults they develop a hard exoskeleton. This may explain why they can get so big. They are not constrained by the size of the seashells in which they first live.
Quite a transformation to fully grown.
The migrating red crabs cover anything from 300 metres to 1.4km (who measures these things??) in a day. They move in a straight line and it’s quite comical to watch. If they encounter an obstacle, they just try to climb over the top instead of looking for a way around.
Sir David Attenborough found this out the hard way. In an interview with the Daily Mail in 2008, he nominated the CI red crab migration in ‘My Top 10 Greatest TV Moments’. He also commented that during the making of his documentary The Trials of Life, he was filmed sitting on the beach amongst the crabs and:
“[the crabs] simply walked straight over the top of me by whatever route they could find. That’s how I discovered how difficult it is to deliver lines while several four-inch crabs, each armed with sharp claws, are advancing menacingly up your inner thigh”.
However, they don’t seem capable of climbing smooth vertical surfaces. To limit crab carnage, ankle high plastic or metal barriers have been constructed along the verge on a lot of roads. The crabs reach the barrier and turn, following it along in the hope of finding a way through.
Eventually the barrier ends at a culvert beneath the road with a cattle grid over the top. The crabs march under the road via the culvert and continue through the forest on the other side.
The most impressive management feature, though, is the crab bridge. Here, the barriers funnel the crabs to a purpose built overpass which the crabs can scale, descending on the other side to continue their journey. Fantastic.
The male crabs leave the burrows first. When they reach the sea, they climb down the basalt rock walls to just above the waterline for a wash to get rid of parasites. They will drown if they end up into the water but, hey, with the ladies soon to arrive for a once-a-year assignation, a gent has to look his best, right?
After bathing, the males retreat and dig burrows close to the shore. After a week or more, the females will arrive and mating takes place. The males take another bath in the sea and head back to their inland homes. The females produce eggs within 3 days of mating and wait in the burrows for up to 2 weeks as the eggs develop. At the third quarter of the moon, the females emerge en masse onto the shore above the waterline, and as the high tide begins to recede, they scuttle to the edge of the sea and release their eggs. The females then also return to the forest.
The larvae hatch as soon as the eggs touch the water. They are washed out to sea on the receding tide where they are tossed about, passing through several larval stages for around one month. They are a veritable buffet for manta rays, whale sharks and fish who visit specifically at this time of year to feed on them. The few which survive develop into prawn-like creatures in the rocky pools close to the shore, and then into baby crabs. Just 5mm in size, the babies march inland to find homes in the forest where they will stay for 3 years before making their first pilgrimage back to the sea to breed.
We didn’t see these later stages of the migration. You would have to stay a month to see it all. But it would be amazing. What we saw certainly was.
The red crabs get all the publicity but they are not the only land crabs on CI. There are 14 species of land based here, pretty remarkable for an island that’s only 135 square kilometres in area. Indeed, CI has the highest diversity of land crabs of anywhere on the planet.
Aside from the red crabs and robber crabs, we were lucky enough to see the CI blue crab, which is endemic to the island. Far less common than the red crabs, these also don’t migrate, so to see them you have to head into the forests.
We also spotted what we think is one called a Little Nipper. It was feasting on the remains of a red crab which was no more.
CI is also a magnet for birders. An estimated 80,000 seabirds nest here annually. It is the only place where eight species of pelicaniformes (think frigates, boobies, tropicbirds, pelicans and cormorants) breed in the one place. Two of these, a local species of the Great Frigatebird and the Golden Bosun, are found only on CI. And the Abbott’s Booby and the Christmas Island Frigatebird may be seen elsewhere but breed only on CI.
Parks Australia runs a rescue service for sick and injured birds. Unless they are a danger to themselves, the birds are free to come and go, and will visit if they are hungry. If you visit park headquarters on the right day, you can watch them feeding the rescue birds.
CI is an important breeding ground for Red-footed Boobies, with more than 12,000 breeding pairs. The chicks are brown, become lighter as juveniles, and as adults are bright white. All have the characteristic red feet.
The Brown Boobies and Abbott’s Boobies proved elusive but some Great Frigatebirds came in.
Each morning and afternoon the sky was full of birds heading out and returning from fishing forays at sea.
And now the human side. So far from mainland Australia, but so close to Indonesia, in the late 1990s CI became a target destination for asylum seekers attempting to get to Australia by boat. Reaching CI equaled making landfall in Australia, and under the international conventions to which Australia is a signatory, gave them a right to apply for asylum here.
On 28 October 2001, a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, in response to a broadcast request from Australian Search and Rescue, picked up 433 potential seekers from a stricken vessel 80 nautical miles from CI. The Tampa headed for CI but was instructed not to enter Australian territorial waters and that assistance would be provided within 48 hours. When none came, the Tampa sailed into territorial waters off CI and was interdicted by 45 SAS members.
Following a standoff, the potential refugees were finally transferred to an Australian navy vessel, not before a visit to the Tampa by the Norwegian ambassador to Australia, several court applications, failed attempts to pass legislation to circumvent any rights they may have had, and world-wide publicity. The Tampa’s captain, Arne Rinnan was hailed a hero by civil rights activists but was not so well liked by Australia’s then government. Not sure what the Christmas Islanders thought, but they named a street in commemoration of the event. Tampa Court leads to Tampa View, a bluff from which the vessel could be seen, waiting offshore all that time.
This was only one of many incidents, not all of them ending so well.
Shortly before the Tampa Incident, on 19 October 2001 a dilapidated Indonesian fishing boat en route from Sumatra to CI with 421 asylum seekers on board capsized in international waters inside the Australian border protection surveillance area surrounding CI. Siev (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel) sank and 353 people, including 146 children, died.
On 15 December 2010, Siev 221, also an Indonesian boat in poor condition, had almost reached CI when its engine failed. The vessel was pushed by massive seas onto the rocky shore of CI. Two nearby Border Force boats monitored the situation from a distance, watching for an hour as the boat was driven toward the rocks, but refused to attempt a rescue on the basis that the conditions were too dangerous. The boat was smashed to pieces while about 60 locals threw life rings and other inflatables attached to ropes into the water from the cliffs above and tried to haul survivors up. Ultimately a Border Force inflatable did assist. 42 people were rescued, but it was too late for 50 others who perished.
Memorials to the lost on both vessels have been erected at Smith Point overlooking Flying Fish Cove.
Such events prompted the construction of a large immigration detention centre on CI and the enactment of legislation excluding CI from Australia’s migration zone such that CI is still ‘Australia’ but arriving here does not trigger any rights to apply for asylum. The boats have stopped but the detention centre remains. It’s well hidden and of course as a tourist there’s no chance of getting anywhere near it.
CI was an amazing, different and interesting destination. With international borders still closed, it was about as close to ‘overseas’ as we got in 2021. And as I finalise this, we are sitting in a cafe in Arras, France. International travel is back, so expect more posts soon!