Christmas Island – Diving with Christmas Spirit, beer and wine.
It would not be worth beginning the story without an explanation of the mineral wealth that is found on Christmas Island. Phosphate can be the result of deep oceanic upwelling’s and concentrations of the mineral later pushed upwards to form land based deposits. It is also the result of seabird guano deposited by millennia of nesting birds fouling ground. Some deposits date back to the dinosaurs, which is a complicated way to say we visited an island that has a concentration of dropping.
Phosphate is used as a fertilizer, to clarify sugar in the refining process (I’m sure it is all boiled and safe and not just bird cr@p in your sugar), Phosphorus the bearer of light” used as a burning agent in weapons, baking additives, a preservative, used in the dairy industry and in saline based laxatives. A theme is beginning to form, pass through the tracts and to deposit it’s riches on the reader.
The first European (Richard Rowe) sighted the Island in 1615, so impressed with the jungle vista he carried on and didn’t name the island. In 1643 the year after Columbus ignored the fact that America was named by a Welshman, William Myers named the steaming jungle island on Christmas day. Again no landing party ventured onto the Island. In 1887 soil and rock samples were taken and found to be nearly pure Phosphate shortly after in 1888 when a cafe was built, the British annexed the Island. By 1899 the monsoonal forest of guano Phosphate was initially mined.
Zoom forward 118 years and an intrepid band of adventurers booked their places for an expedition to “Australia’s Galapagos Islands”. It is likely that an antipodean saw the Galapagos Islands on a nature program and had a genius idea to market Guano Island in the same way. Throw in a few crabs, some birds and sharks and you are set for luring divers and nature lovers to see nature in the raw. First we had to get there.
Flight times are a little disjointed, so flying at 7pm we landed in Jakarta close to midnight. For some this meant a sleep, for others finding the bar. In the morning there were two district class of diver, the ones with dry mouths and those without. Another plane and the joys of Jakarta International airport. With additional luggage allowance and even more additional luggage, we managed to check in. The plane managed to take off after a long run up and we headed south towards the Indian Ocean. In only an hour we were descending. For those who looked out of the window the island appeared as rain forest and a load of conveyors and silo’s around flying fish cove. A cove so named after a ship, rather than said fish.
Arrivals at Xmas Island International is small, the bags were dug out of trailers and we went out to find our dive guides and the minibus’s to take us to our hotels. The route march had began. Throw you bags in the room, decant dive gear, deliver gear to dive shop, go to the supermarket, form a massive queue, buy booze and food. Come back, wash, change and head to the Golden Bosun (So named after a yellow tropic bird endemic to the island). Drink and eat massive pieces of meat and no vegetables. Stagger home and get gear ready to dive. The call was 8am at the shop, fit in some sleep.
Christmas Island sticks out of very deep water. The island is mainly walls and slopes dropping away to blue. Our first dive was in the cover on a modest slope to 25 + metres and the Eisenvold wreck. This is a Norwegian ore carrier sank by a Japanese submarine, which limped away from the berth and sank. She lies in several pieces from around 10 metres to 50 metres on the slope. There were the remains of several Sampson posts, plate and a steam engine. The remains are spread over a wide area, with some recognisable bits. No treasure and port holes to be had. There were some large bat fish around the engine and fusiliers. Not far along we did the second dive at West White Beach, which is west. This is more a short flat reef and a wall.
Christmas Island has been hit with two bleaching events in the last 5 years. This has reduced the coral diversity to an extent, but also left areas of damaged and dead coral in areas depending on the site. As a result the fish that feed on algae are more prolific and other species have suffered. The diversity of fish is reasonable and specific to the Indian Ocean, but also some endemic species local to Christmas Islands. There are not big numbers of very large fish, but a good amount of fish. The number of larger pelagic fish was unpredictable and fleeting. The protection of the reef in the national park is limited to a short distance off-shore. Line fishing is a major sport which probably takes care of anything too big.
Lunch was spent at the end of the jetty, with a packed lunch of various Chinese delicacies. A large percentage of the islanders are of Chinese origin so we could not really avoid home from home food. James rested from his labours and bins were moved by considerate divers to effect a scenic wind brake. After lunch we headed back for more. This time to full frontal cave. It appears many of the sites have been named by the dive operators in the same way a native American Indian names a baby. Crouching Poodle, Hidden dog mine; Seagull with big nuts; Boobies and jungle – Anyway for the dive group that did find the cave, this was a wide entrance into an ante-chamber, at around 12 metres, then a slope into a larger air-filled chamber (Thunderdome - “These our witness, Aunty. Us suffer bad. Want justice. We want Thunderdome!”, “You know the law: Two men enter, one man leaves. “ Fortunately we all got in and aunty Belshaw and everyone else got out. The slope went over several large boulders into a large chamber with various stalactite’s handing from the ceiling and some stalagmites and rock formations above the water level. The cave had fresh water flowing through it at a fair pace. There is a large air chamber, so you can breath in the chamber without a problem. All of which is part of a water course heading inland. Inside we were looking for a native prawn and a blind long legged hermit cram and electric clam. I don’t think we found the crustacean’s .The other group were unable to find the cave, so after some poodling round the entrance we headed to the blue for a safety stop and to see if anything big was interested in checking us out. Some of us found this cave. Others did not.
After a comparison of dives we headed to Isabelle beach and another wall. It’s a blur. We dropped to between 25 and 28 metres off the shelf and paralleled along the wall, then slowly headed upwards in stages until on the plateaux close to the cliffs and beach. On the way there were coral trout, moray, fusilier, various goby an occasional nudibranch, angel fish and butterfly fish and lots of stripeys and spotties, including the blue spot dottie. Out in the blue again for the pick up, we were on the look out for anything big, whilst winding up on our DSMB’s.
We were finished after 6, the sun fell out of the sky and we headed back for a quick wash, sorting camera’s and gear, then putting batteries on charge and dressing for dinner. Fine dining took place in a number of places. The Golden Bosun is a big tin shed and we headed inside having failed to organise a BBQ. If you were vegetarian, you would probably starve. After a big feed and some beer we all retired for rest. The next day was another 8am start and 4 more gruelling dives.
The next day we arrived for a wall dive, Perpendicular wall in fact, which it was. We were warned to look out into the blue of bigger fish and at the wall for critters. A white tip floated past at one point, but the long string of divers had various views. This may have been the dive a green turtle was startled and fled. For those at the rear of the line, this was a distant shape flapping off into the distance. The fish by this stage were pretty similar on the whole, the dives were differentiated by a big fish, mammal, cave, shark or some other memorable event. There were some large parrot fish and bump-head parrot fish is patches, all taking bites from the coral. Thunder dome cave, this I think was a hole in the cliff, but we didn’t go in. The sea was whacking the roof of the cave, so it was no place without a helmet. James continued to have his lunch and a siesta between morning and afternoon sessions and his fellow divers made him comfortable from excess UV exposure by shading him with the umbra of the moon.
Coconut point, this is a right turn from Flying fish cove and distinguished by a coconut tree. It was a steep slope not far from some big mooring buoys. I think this was the one with old water courses to the cliff base. There were goby with the neon cheek stripe here. Indigenous to the island. Up at the cliffs were caves for those who were preserving their air. The cliff must have a lot of caves and swim through’ s some of which were passable, others were a bit tight. We moved onto Smith Point, there is one diver who claims it was a superb site and named in his honour. However, it was memorable only by my lack of memory for the site. It is similar to everywhere else. Dead and live coral, with the same fish shipped in from up the road.
We finished at 1830 and headed for a quick change, battery charging and a BBQ. Meat had been found in the supermarket also, plus a limited supply of vegetables. The only vegetable was beer in general. Most people were slightly tired from our labours and headed back for rest. Others, mainly those without dive commitment appeared to have continued late into the night, filling up on various fermented vegetable and fruit based beverages.
In the morning we headed for North west point. I think this is the one with the long swim to a platform to look for sharks. After 20 minutes against the current, we arrived at a platform at about 25 metres, Mr Shark was out to lunch. We headed back up the slope and mooched about among the coral. We managed to chase off a turtle and see some vague shark-like silhouettes, but the hype was greater than the spectacle. Dive two was Daniel Roux Cave. Apparently named after a boy who died aged 4 after moving away from the Island. The cave is apparently narrow, so we didn’t go for a line astern entry and pack ourselves into a dark hole. Instead we paralleled the wall looking for big and small stuff. I think we saw a lone barracuda and a distant tuna shaped fish on deco. Otherwise there were similar fish again on the wall. Submarine rock – there is a rock that is supposed to look like a submarine. When Heinz Edelmann was dropping acid to draw the “yellow submarine” animation, he would have struggled to make a convincing case the rock was submarine like, rather than a big rock. Another wall.
The evening was spent in the Golden bosun, on account of the limited opening time of other establishments. By now everyone was in the routine of - home, sort kit, charge batteries, shower change out, eat, drink, bed.
The next day we went to a more exposed part of the island and Egeria Pinacle. The wind tends to hit one side of the island for long stretches in the year so this was towards the limit of where we could get to. There is a pinnacle which stands from the seafloor at around 40 metres to around 20 metres below the surface. With the water movement, there is little coral, but there were shoals of jack and other larger fish on patrol around the rock. The rock was also home to several moray eels. We headed back onto the reef and paralleled up towards 10 metres, before heading into the blue and a safety stop at 6 metres. This was the dive where the chop had built up in the 45 minutes since we jumped in, which then made boat entry a challenge. A reminder of how conditions can change and where the swell makes life difficult.
Winifreds wall, another wall, this is the dive where people saw dolphin and some bigger tuna and sharks cruising about on the safety stop. After lunch we stayed local in Flying fish cove and the cemetery. This site is opposite the cemetery. The site is mainly slope with several old river beds and gullies. If you followed them into the shallows, many turned into caves. This is where we saw the indigenous goby with the neon blue stripe under the eye. I think there was supposed to be some type of local shrimp, but we didn’t get to see any. Delicious, but endangered by all accounts.
Further booze was bought and there was a combination of eating out and a few jars at the pool. The pace was unrelenting.
The last day we went out and to the left from the jetty. Boat cave is a larger cave were fishermen have hidden boats in bad weather. It was also a test of navigation to do two caves in one dive. What you needed was a dive guide, or an idea what depth the cave entrance was at. We had a swim outside and between the caves, while part of the group mostly swan outside…, again. Thunder cliff, named after the sound of wave whacking the caves and rocks in bad weather. This is another wall with similar fauna and floura.
After a home cooked Chinese lunch the last two dives were at coconut point and the morgue. There were bones at the morgue at one time, but not now. The site is not too dissimilar from Flying fish cove. There was no last minute visitation by king Neptune on five tiger sharks, 3 whale shark, a whale or vast shoals of GT. So we had limited sightings of bigger fish and a mixed bag with the small stuff. The coral has taken a hit, so the Island as a dive destination is compromised to an extent now. The visibility is very good, easily 40 metres most of the time, with the occasional drop with bits in the water to 20+ metres. The worst of Christmas Island viz, is still better than the best Hong Kong Viz.
We were not depressed, we had no more diving, so it was time to get drunk. Gear was hastily washed and we turned out for another barbecue and booze. Diving had taken its toll, there was a lame effort to dent the booze supply and food. Fizzling we retired in readiness for the safari and crabs.
In the morning there was a convoy of cars and vans that headed off to the Dales. This is crab central with red crabs, blue crabs and coconut crabs everywhere. In addition there were some lesser known golden crabs and black backed crabs with gold legs. The Dales ahs a waterfall and people naturally got their feet wet and fell over. There is a path through the forest and crab burrows by the thousand heading into the trees. There were also some birds flitting about, golden eyes, Christmas island Robins and pigeons. Coo, you can’t go anywhere with seeing a pigeon.
We then went to the blow holes. The limestone cliff has eroded into jagged and sharp outcrops and gullies. The sea has pushed through the limestone cap and the prevailing swell pushed water and spay high into the air. With a half decent hit by the swell, water was being pushed 15 metres in the air. We did lunch en masse at some point, the ubiquitous, Chinese restaurant, with lazy Susan’s and the local twist of expensive vegetable dishes. However, we did get some greens for a change, at great cost.
We went up to the lookout and the cloud rolled in. Apparently there is a visa of the entire island from here, but we missed it. The cloud prevented planes from landing and they had to turn back to Jakarta that afternoon, so we did wonder if the would be trapped. We saw a bat, briefly flapping past in daylight here also. At the side of the road we stopped to take pictures of various boobies in the trees. We even saw coconut crabs fighting over opened coconuts on the road, so they do eat coconuts (along with carrion). We went to Ethel beach and saw green crabs to add to the list. There were also juvenile boobies on the cliffs, so it was possible to walk up to them and take pictures. We drove to another beach and then to the grotto, which is a swimming hole in the rocks.
Back at the ranch, we headed off for the last supper. All the wine and booze we had was attacked. The food was good and we compared notes and stories on the weeks diving. Once enough wine was consumed we were given a show by the visiting German gymnast Nicola Vogeleski. Flick-flack to cartwheel to handstand and specially for the crowds the crab. What talent. Celebrations ended and we headed back.
The flight out was not until the afternoon. Semi-dry and used kit was packed and we mustered for the final trip to Chrimbo International Airport. We said our goo byes to our terrific hosts and took the last shots of Santa’s little helpers. A short hop to Jakarta and a long wait for the connection to Hong Kong. The other option was a night in the hotel and a later flight, which may have been the better solution. On arrival at Hong Kong there was some sort of race going on, so the trip home took a bit longer, unless you stayed the night and had a slackers return later.
We had a great trip. Thanks to Mike for organising and booking us all the way through. Then a big thank you to Extra Divers. Finally, a big thanks to everyone for making it a memorable and enjoyable trip with crabs.