It is important to have adventure, exploration and the tonic of nature to look forward to, especially after so many months of being cooped up indoors. For those of us in WA, things are looking up now that our regions are opening and we can get back on the road. To get you exited about upcoming travel opportunities in your area, we bring you another tour reflection to get you into the travel spirit.
This tale is told by Patrick Bates and details his adventures on our Christmas and Cocos Island Tour. Think sandy beaches, abundant marine life, unique wildlife and fascinating geological history. Enjoy!
Christmas and Cocos Island Tour: 19 – 29 November 2019
If you have ever wanted to travel through time, then all you have to do is travel between Christmas and Cocos Island, figuratively of course. This is because the geological history of Christmas and Cocos Islands are the same; the only difference is Christmas Island is a million-plus years older. To explain, both islands started the same. They began as undersea volcanos in a geological hot spot in the Indian Ocean. As the islands grew, they approached the surface of the ocean where they were met by sunlight. The sun was the last ingredient needed for life to develop. Coral started to grow and a limestone cap formed on top of the volcano. This limestone erodes into sand, creating a sandy atoll with a central lagoon. The islands are now the perfect habitat for plants, birds and of course crabs. This is what Cocos Island looks like to today, with its beautiful sandy beaches, lush flora and abundant birdlife. But if you would like to see Cocos future, all you have to do is fly north to Christmas Island.
While both islands have stopped growing from volcanic activity, as they have moved from the hot spot that initially formed them, they are still growing. As the oceanic shelf pushes the islands north, they experiences uplift, being forced up and out of the ocean before subduction pulls them down into the Java trench. Today, Christmas Island is at its highest point (currently sitting at 357m above sea level) and over the next millions of years will disappear under the ocean.
Now, Christmas Island’s rise out of the sea wasn’t done in one smooth action. Sometimes it rose slowly and other times it would rise quickly (in geological terms, it was still very slow literally). Because of this uneven rise, the Island has steep cliffed terraces with a central plateau. The best way I can explain the Island is that it looks like a giant tiered wedding cake. Being the older of the two islands (as well as being much larger in land size) Christmas Island has a much more extensive range of flora and fauna. Christmas Island wildlife includes many endemic species like the Golden Boson Bird, Abbots Booby and the iconic Red Crabs.
Understanding the similar origin stories of these two islands also lets you truly appreciate how different they are.
I meet up with the rest of our group on the morning of Tuesday the 19th of November at Perth Airport. Most Coates tours start at the tour destination but as there are only two flights a week to Christmas Island this tour starts and finishes in Perth. After meeting the rest of the group and my fellow guides, we checked in for our flight and soon we were in the air. The flight to Christmas Island was only a few hours and without event. Once we arrived and cleared customs, I was delighted to find that all of the group’s luggage had arrived with us. Although many people come to the Island for a holiday (especially this time of year for the Red Crab migration) tourism isn’t the Island’s primary source of income. Phosphate mining (the original reason for the Island settling) is the primary employer on the Island and as such tourists aren’t as high priority as you might expect. Now, this does have its advantages (for one when we are on the Island we aren’t tripping over other tourists), but unfortunately it also as its disadvantages (occasionally tourists’ luggage is offloaded from the plane in favour of locals extra baggage). After departing the airport, we drove to our accommodation to drop off our bags and freshen up before dinner. For our first meal we headed down to Flying Fish Cove for a BBQ dinner and an introduction to the Island. After, we returned to our accommodation for a good nights sleep in preparation for the adventure starting the next day.
For our first full day on the Island we met up with our local guide John, to explore the town and learn some of the local histories of the Island. Starting at Tai Jin House (nicknamed Buck House, the Buckingham Palace of the Island) John explained the history of the settlement of the Island. As we stand under the mango tree next to Tai Jin, the group’s attention is taken by a pair of Golden Bosun Birds on the cliff above. Commonly seen soaring around the Island, these two were repeatedly landing in the same rock crevice. We believed this unusual sight was the two picking out or fighting over a nesting site and the display held our attention for some time. We then went on a walk around the townsite visiting the old WW2 defence cannon, the European cemetery and other historic sights. The day finished at the Territory Day Park where we went for a walk through an adjacent rainforest. Walking through the rainforest we got a close up look at the terraces as we walked down and up between levels. Before we left the day park, we walked to the neighbouring bird rescue centre to watch the bird feeding and listen to a talk from one of the islands rangers.
The bird rescue centre is an open-air area (no cages) where infant birds can safely sit, receive food and fly away once they are ready. Christmas Island is an essential breeding site for many birds, including those that call the Island home all year long and those that travel far and wide. One of the most spectacular birds (and the reason the centre was set up) is the Abbott’s Booby. Although this bird can be spotted away from Christmas Island, this is their only breeding ground. Abbott’s are very picky about the type of tree they nest in as they need emergent canopy (typically an exposed tree taller than the surrounding forest). The reason for this is, although the Abbott’s are excellent long-distance flyers, they need a lot of clear space around them to flap their wings to take off. Lucky Christmas Island is perfect for emergent canopy. Not only does it have large trees on its central plateau but as the Island steps down in its terraces, trees that are no taller then their neighbours stand above them due to the drop-off. Unfortunately, one year a cyclone passed the island closely creating strong winds that dislodged many Abbott’s from their nests. These chicks would usually die if left unaided but luckily thanks to some quick thinking residents they work collected and cared for, and the rescue centre was created.
Speaking of saving species in the nick of time, we also visited “Pink House” on the central plateau. Taken over by the Island’s ranges the house now is a breeding site for the endemic and endangered Blue-tailed Sink. These skinks were driven to extinction in the wild by the invasive giant centipede. Luckily a small population was collected from a remote part of the Island before the centipedes could thoroughly infest the area. This small population was the start of the breeding program created by the ranges at Pink House, which has now resulted in multiple attempts at reintroducing the skink back into the wild with limited success. The rangers told us that they have had to set up fenced areas that they then treat with poison to remove the centipedes. These fenced areas have been so successful they are expanding the program. This includes a safety population at a mainland zoo and wild releases to Cocos Island (but we will cover that later). Indeed it was so fortunate that the small population survived or this beautiful lizard would be lost forever.
Now the one species that almost everyone associates with Christmas Island is the Red Crab. Our tour is scheduled to hopefully coincide with the crab’s annual migration to breed. Unfortunately, a component of the migration is based on rainfall and up until our second last day on the Island, not a drop fell. And when it did fall it was only a brief shower for less than ten minutes. However, this rain was enough to get the Red Crabs up and out of their burrows, if only to stretch their legs. We pulled over at a random spot in the road to look at some low perched boobies. However, when we looked at the ground, it was alive with the movement of Red Crabs. Hundreds of them. This treat gave us an example of what the migration might look like if we had been lucky enough to be on the Island for the spectacular even.
Now the fact that we missed the Red Crab migration doesn’t mean we didn’t see a plethora of crabs. Christmas Island is home to over 20 different species of land crab, and of these crabs, none is more spectacular than the Coconut Crab (also called the Robber Crab). These monsters are the largest land crab in the world. Formally widespread in the tropical region of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, they are now restricted to a few tropical islands. Being a member of the Hermit Crab family, when Coconut crabs are young they will use a sea shell to help protect their bodies from predators. As the crab matures they grow too big to fit in any shell. Luckily for them by this time, their exoskeleton is strong enough to protect them. However, their body will always have the distinctive curved shape that all Hermit Crabs have.
One of the best places on the Island to see all the different species of crabs is the Dales. This geological formation is one of my favourite parts of the Island. At the Dales, the islands volcanic history comes to the surface with the volcanic basalt visible on the surface. The difference in the porous limestone and solid basalt plays an integral part in the islands water cycle. Tropical rains fall during the wet season and as the water hits the Island it soaks into the limestone and permeates down slowly until it hits the basalt. Once the water hits the basalt, it starts to flow down the Island towards the sea. Sometimes these underground rivers never see the light of day and flow into the ocean; however, in some locations (like at the Dales) the water comes to the surface forming freshwater streams. These streams form excellent habitats for many of the Island’s crabs that still need fresh water to survive. What makes the Dales so unique is that after the half-hour walk up the valley, you are treated to a pristine waterfall with a stunning view of the valley. A perfect place to cool off under a natural shower after a hot walk.
Speaking of great places to cool off, another one of my favourite places for a dip is the Grotto (and no it’s not the one at the Playboy Mansion). The Grotto is another example of the islands exciting geology. Situated in the bottom of a shallow cave you will find a small sandy floored pool perfect for a refreshing dip. Located close to the coast, this pool is fed by an underground river and has a small opening to the ocean. The resulting semi saltwater is crystal clear and ever so refreshing.
As I have already mentioned above, the islands tiered shape provides extra opportunities for birdlife to nest. It also provides an excellent opportunity to watch the birds. High cliff lookouts gave us great sightings of the all the endemic birdlife. This includes the Golden-tailed Bosun-bird (a golden coloured morph of the White-tailed Tropicbird unique to Christmas Island), Christmas Island Frigatebird, the above mentioned Abbott’s Booby as well as a multitude of other sea birds. One of the other surprising sightings we spotted from these cliff vistas was the Christmas Island Fruit Bat. Unlike most bats that are nocturnal, the bats of Christmas Island have lived without predators for so many generations that they have abandoned being active at night in favour of foraging during the day.
After a week of exploring the Island, it was time to leave, luckily we were heading to another tropical paradise. Cocos Island is an archipelago of low small sandy islands surrounding a central lagoon. Settled initially for coconut farming, the Island later had an essential role as a station along the under ocean telegraph cable. Today the Island is a great spot to come to birdwatch, scuba dive or just to enjoy a white sandy beach.
Our time on Cocos was a little more relaxed. On our first day, we spent the morning exploring the northern end of West Island (the island with the airport on the western side of the lagoon). Most of the native flora of the Island has been removed in favour of coconut plants. Luckily there is still a plethora of different birds and other wildlife for us to observe on the Island. My favourite surprise was finding an eel in the tidal rock pools as we explored the beach at low tide. After lunch, we caught the island ferry across the lagoon to Home Island (a large island on the eastern side of the lagoon). Some would say that Home Island is the cultural home of Cocos. As the name suggests Home Island was the home to Clunies-Ross family, the original settlers of the archipelago. Today most residents live on Home Island as well as it being home to a lot of the Islands amenities.
Our final adventure on Cocos before we departed back to Perth was getting up close and personal with some of the small uninhabited islands of the archipelago. Our mode of transportation was motorised canoes. These small canoes allow us to access islands with shallow waters as well as sand bars for birdwatching and coral reefs for snorkelling. One of the Islands we visited was a tiny island that had been chosen as a test release site for the endanger Blue-tailed Sink from Christmas Island. This Island had been selected as it was free from introduced predators and would be a good test to see how well the skinks could service in the wild. Information collected here would give the Christmas Island researchers and ranges tips for hopefully one day reintroducing them to Christmas Island.
David Attenborough described the Christmas Island Red Crab Migration as “the greatest migration on earth “. Even after my visit to the Island without seeing this spectacular event, I truly believed that Christmas and Cocos Islands are among the worlds most valuable ecological hot spots and well worth the effort to visit.
We hope you enjoyed reading Patrick’s story and that you are looking forward to returning to travel, whenever and wherever that may be!
In the meantime, we hope you stay safe and well and we look forward to travelling with you in future.
Happy wildlife spotting!