Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Christmas Island: Where the Crabs Rule

Admit it... this is a pretty cool license plate
Still in catch-up mode...

After Nepal, I got to travel back home to Colorado for two weeks over Thanksgiving, then returned to KL in early December. Later that month, I was invited to Christmas Island at the end of 2012. I actually spent New Year's Eve/Day on this small island in the middle of nowhere. It was a unique experience, to be certain, but I'd honestly never recommend Christmas Island as a place to go for New Year's!

The island itself, an Australian territory, lies in the Indian Ocean, about 500km directly south of Jakarta, really not even close to the Australian continent. It's merely the tip of an iceless iceberg, the above-water portion of a massive submarine volcanic mountain. The volcano is long since extinct, but what remains is a parcel of land that, owing to its geographic isolation and a long existence free from human disturbance, possesses a substantial number of unique species of plants and animals and offers an equally unique travel experience.

First view of Christmas Island from the air

Christmas Island was discovered (and thus named) on Christmas Day in 1643, but it wasn't until some 45 years later that seafarers were able to successfully land on the island and start exploring it. Fast-forward two centuries or so to the time when vast reserves of phosphate were discovered on the island. With this finding, the settlement and development of the island became financially feasible, and thus it was made so, and it is this mining activity that not only gave a foundation to the island’s economy, it directly contributed to the quality of the infrastructure that is still in place today. Quality roads and pathways, hot and cold running water, reliable electrical service, proper sewerage… not always what you expect to find on a remote island, but very much the case here.  Following the defeat of the Japanese, who occupied this island during WWII, the island was under Singaporean auspices as part of the UK Straits Settlement. In 1957, Australia petitioned the UK for transfer of sovereignty and paid £2.9 million to Singapore as part of the agreement, and in 1958, the first official representative of the Australian government arrived on the island, and with that, Christmas Island officially became an Australian territory – and for me, that meant another new stamp in my passport. (In fact, Australia was the final stamp in my passport, which was set to expire shortly after the Christmas Island trip.)

One of the island's most famed residents
Christmas Island is, of course, famous for its annual migration of Red Crabs, an endemic crab species on the island. Every year, millions of the bright red crabs make their way from the jungles to the sea as part of their mating ritual. If you time your visit right, you’ll see these crabs by the thousands, in one of nature’s most impressive mass migration spectacles. The date of the migration varies from year to year, sometimes substantially, depending on rain and weather patterns. Our trip did not coincide with the height of the migration; that occurred a few weeks later. We still saw plenty of crabs, though! Some 50 million of the red crabs are estimated to live on Christmas Island and you never had to really even look hard for them, especially after any amount of rain, when they'd emerge in droves. Perhaps even more impressive is the world’s largest population of the coconut crab, more commonly called the robber crab. This crab is the largest terrestrial arthropod in the world, and about a million are thought to live on the island. They live mostly in the forested areas of the island and can be nearly the size of a soccer ball. They are prodigious climbers and can be incredibly determined and resourceful when trying to get to something they fancy, hence their “robber” reputation.

One of my favorite experiences on this island was something called The Blowholes. After a 1-km trek through the forest, we emerged on the rocky coast. Here, the series of caverns and channels in the limestone outcroppings act as a giant echo chamber network for the crashing surf. Frequently, bursts of water and spray will erupt from fissures in the rocks. Really an otherworldly place. Here are some photos from the trip:

View of the Indian Ocean from my hotel

Out of business. I guess the ho wasn't so lucky, after all.

The red crab migration is a really big deal here

This is a juvenile robber crab, picked up to show its size
relative to a person's hand.

The limestone formations at The Blowholes

Hiking the 1km or so to The Blowholes,
we saw this amazing tree

Two robber crabs showing off their climbing ability

Crystal-clear waters off the coast

Great Frigatebird, captured in "mid-flap" flight

The beautiful Golden Bosun in flight

This island was a dire place to spend New Year's Eve, I must say again, but it was worth suffering through that night for what was unquestionably a great opportunity to do something and go somewhere I almost certainly never would have were it not job-related. Because Christmas Island is not on any regular flight schedule (except perhaps from Perth, Australia) and due to its relative isolation and commensurate high prices, a trip to this island can be quite costly. As the fledgling tourism industry strives to take hold there, it may be that one day, it's an easier destination that will see more people exploring and experiencing it. For my part, the people there were exceptionally friendly (and they all love their island) and for those interested in nature or wildlife, it's an easy place to recommend. To wrap up, here's a short, fairly rubbishy video shot at The Blowholes to give you an idea of what it was like...