Booby birds screeched and crabs scuttled through the darkness as we woke the rainforest at 3:30am with our bright torches and over-excited chatter. Birds swooped overhead as we dodged clawed robber crabs the size of basketballs and creatures rustled the nearby branches. This was no ordinary night walk – we were on our way to a once-in-a-lifetime event, one which Sir David Attenborough ranks among his top-10 most amazing experiences.
Christmas Island, some 2600km northwest of Perth, is famous for its millions of red crabs, amazing snorkelling, diving, fishing, bird watching, dense rainforests and stunning coastline. My husband, Ashley, and I had first visited the island 15 years ago – this time we hoped to see the red crab migration and were taking our three children on a holiday they would hopefully never forget. We promised them adventure and incredible natural experiences and our trip was certainly starting on a high.
The planets had aligned. It was the right moon and tide, and we were about to see masses of red crabs release their eggs into the ocean – an event that happens over a two-day period only once a year.
The gentle sound of the ocean became clearer as we picked up our walking pace, hoping to be on the beach by 4am. The kids counted robber crabs – we were up to 22 and growing in confidence as we grew accustomed to the dark and to the eerie birdcalls from deep within the forest. We negotiated the crabs on the stairs to Ethel Beach and, as I looked towards the ocean, I gasped in shock, totally unprepared for what lay beneath.
The beach was a shifting carpet of red as thousands upon thousands of crabs scurried to release their precious cargo. We could barely find a patch of sand to stand on as crabs bravely soldiered on, oblivious to our presence. They crawled over our shoes toward the water, where they held their claws high to do their special shimmy-shake as the ocean became increasingly black, stained with billions of eggs.
Crabs hung off cliff faces and clustered on small rocky outcrops in their thousands in a race to spawn before the tide changed and daylight approached. The kids sat on a patch of empty sand and giggled as crabs on their way back to the rainforest clambered over their legs and hands. Sharing this incredible event with my children was like a gift from nature and something we will treasure forever.
Flying Fish Cove is a wonderful protected bay and the ocean hub of Christmas Island. The jetty, boat ramp and loading dock for the island’s phosphate mining activities are located here, but we were more interested in what was underwater. We couldn’t wait to take the kids snorkelling in the calm, clear, 30-degree waters and were on a mission to reach the 150m drop-off.
The boys were scared and excited in equal parts, but as soon as they put their heads in the water, a real-life screening of Nemo unfolded. Dory, Gill and Turtle all made appearances, but it was Bruce (reef shark variety) weaving his way among the stunning plate corals that brought a huge smile to their faces.
Bailey, our intrepid five-year-old, kicked his little fins vigorously to keep up with Bruce when the reefy bottom fell away into an abyss of darkness just 100m from shore. We watched predators patrol the drop-off zone but, no matter how hard we searched for the bottom, all we could see were the sun’s rays penetrating the deep blue.
The boys soon headed back to shallower water, where they were immersed in colourful corals, anemone fish, lionfish, pipefish and swift reef sharks. While the snorkelling is incredible, scuba diving with anemone fish, exploring the drop-offs and getting up close to unspoilt corals and tropical fish is spectacular.
GIANTS OF THE DEEP
Ashley and I joined Wet and Dry Adventures for a dive around the western side of the island, while a babysitter looked after the kids for the morning. We descended to the magical drop-off zone, but it was difficult to know where to look. Big pelagics, such as giant trevally, sharks and mackerel, cruised along the deep blue, while in the other direction a stunning array of tropical fish, corals and sponges were waiting to be explored.
With the massive amount of fresh crab eggs in the water, visibility was a little down from the average 30m. However, some whale sharks were in town for the Christmas seafood bonanza and I was hopeful to see one.
Christmas Island is a boating paradise but, since it’s in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the weather can get rough every now and again, and the island’s towering cliffs are pummelled by huge swells. When we visited in January, the weather was incredible – the bay was glassy and calm, and we were able to fish, snorkel and swim to our heart’s content. My only complaint was that it was rather steamy due to the high humidity and lack of breeze.
From March to October, the regular southeast trade winds bring a steady stream of yachties, who seek shelter in the calm waters of Flying Fish Cove. With courtesy moorings available in the cove, it is the perfect place for some downtime, to restock supplies or to undertake repairs. And every September, Christmas Island is a stopover for the World ARC Round the World Rally.
Most of Christmas Island is accessible – no matter where the wind is coming from, there is generally a sheltered spot. There are two boat ramps – one at Flying Fish Cove and another at Ethel Beach, where boats can fish in 300m of water within a few hundred metres of the shore.
Keen to discover some of the island’s great sportsfishing, I booked with Mark from Shorefire Fishing, the island’s only charter and commercial fishing operator. I was lucky that the weather was calm, but apparently the fishing had fallen flat only a week earlier. I knew it wasn’t the peak fishing period, but I was looking forward to a day out on the water while the kids stayed on the island with Ashley.
We left early in the morning to escape the heat and the lines were in the water before we had even left Flying Fish Cove. I marvelled at the frigate birds circling overhead and how the rainforest grew right to the edge of the steep cliffs, which cascaded into the clear water below. I was absorbed by the island’s beauty when two big yellowfin tuna brought me back to reality as the reels screamed under the strain of these hefty fighters. Mark had warned me about the shark problem and it wasn’t long before my tuna was downsized by an unwelcome predator.
WHALE SHARK AHOY
We spent the day trolling and casting lures for sportsfish, catching a mix of species, but the highlight had nothing to do with fishing. On our way home, I glanced at what I thought was a massive clump of weed, only to remember there is no seaweed at Christmas … and it was moving. I leapt to my feet yelling “whale shark!” and panicked to get my snorkel and fins on while Mark wound in the rods.
I jumped into the water to immediately find myself face-to-face with a massive whale shark about 7m long, bigger than Mark’s charter boat. I paddled backwards to move out of its way as it slowly meandered along. Seeing the red crab migration and now swimming solo with one of the world’s gentle giants made me feel like one very lucky visitor, indeed.
Christmas Island is 135sq km in size and a national park covers almost two thirds of it. The park shares its border with the phosphate mine, which is the cornerstone of the island’s commercial activates. Phosphate mining began in 1888 and saw many Chinese, Malays and Sikhs migrate to the island for work. In 1958, Christmas Island became an Australian Territory, but it has retained the cultural diversity from its colourful past. There are many temples and places of worship, while a variety of cultural events and festivals make Christmas an interesting and socially significant place to visit.
The island was formed by volcanic activity and exposed basalt can be seen at beautiful Dolly Beach and Hugh’s Dale Waterfall. The Dales is one of two wetlands on the island and the 1.5km walk through the forest is a definite must. On the short walk, we admired the rainforest, birds, insects and some of the 20 crab species found on the island.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the iconic waterfall and were pleased to have our own private viewing. The cool water pummelled our shoulders as we stood beneath, taking care not to tread on the red crabs that were also finding relief from the humid conditions.
The island’s dense tropical rainforest is home to more than 240 native plant species not found anywhere else in Australia, with 16 endemic species only located on Christmas Island. The towering trees, sheer cliffs and stunning scenery feels like Australia’s answer to Jurassic Park … minus the dinosaurs.
There is, however, one distinct creature which could rightly star in the dinosaur thriller – the intimidating coconut crab. Also known as robber crabs, these giant crustaceans can grow to a metre in width, with the world’s largest population at Christmas. Their claws can crack coconuts, they climb trees, and they’re known to be very ‘light fingered’, stealing anything they can get their claws on. Shovels, drills and cooking pots, to name a few, have been found in the forest and urban legend has it that a rifle was stolen from defence personnel many years ago.
However, these creatures are actually rather demure and, due to the large number of road deaths, great care has been taken to protect them. Warning signs have been erected and motorists are encouraged to stop so robber crabs can cross safely, while those game enough will pick up the huge crabs and carry them to safety. Crab fatalities are recorded, with pink spray paint on the road a reminder to take care.
The rainforest is home to thousands of birds, including frigatebirds, red-footed booby seabirds, tropicbirds and many more species. Bird watchers flock to the island, as this is the only place in the world where the Abbott’s booby, Christmas Island frigatebird and the golden bosunbird (a golden form of the white-tailed tropicbird) nest. We loved spotting the bosuns, with their magnificent tails, as they soared above the trees. We also visited the ranger’s station to help feed some birds they were nursing back to health and were lucky to see a rare juvenile Abbott’s booby.
While visiting Ethel Beach, the boys discovered a red-footed booby on the ground. We took the weak bird to the ranger’s station, where it was fed a rehydrating formula through a gastric tube. The boys visited every day to check on ‘Flash’ and two weeks later we were happy to hear that he had returned to the rainforest.
Christmas Island is more than a travel destination – it is an experience. It’s a place you can bond with … even though it took us a few days to adjust to the local custom of leaving the house unlocked, car keys in the ignition and wallet on the dash. As a tourist, it is refreshing to visit a place where you feel safe, welcome and embraced as part of the community. Christmas really is a jewel in the Indian Ocean, isolated in its location, and unique in its diversity, culture, wildlife and natural splendour.