Australia's Christmas Island is a remote diving destination rich in marine life, writes Evelyn Seeger.
Everybody knows about Christmas Island, in the South Pacific, but there is another Christmas Island 360km south of Java, in the Indian Ocean, belonging to Australia - to which Britain ceded the island in 1958. Although it had been discovered during the 17th century by buccaneers, it was not until 1643 that Captain William Minors of the British East India Company stumbled across it and named it Christmas Island - after the day on which he discovered it. The island remained uninhabited until rich phosphate resources were discovered a century ago. Today the islanders' lives are still very much determined by the phosphate mining industry. Recently tourism has developed greatly. The island's geographic setting and lively reefs make it an excellent place for divers, and for nature lovers wishing to experience scenic rainforest. In 1980 a national park was declared which now covers more than half the island. Until 1993 the only way to reach this remote Australian enclave was from Perth - an unthinkable journey, expensive and far too long. Nowadays, though, visitors can take a 50min flight from Jakarta, or fly in from Singapore. Do not expect a fantasy island: palm fronds swaying in warm breezes on idyllic beaches. Christmas Island is remote and solitary, and its gentle beauty can change within seconds when the north-westerly monsoons lash the island. Its isolation has brought about many natural peculiarities. It has 32 unique animal and plant species. Its rainforest and sea cliffs provide ideal nesting grounds for many seabirds, such as frigate and booby birds. In burrows in the rainforest Christmas Island's millions of red crabs thrive. The protected robber crab - the largest on earth - also survives here. Once common throughout the south Pacific, zealous harvesting very nearly wiped it out. Christmas Island is the peak of a submarine mountain. The island is fringed by 50m of coral reef, which slowly reaches depths of 20m. The island's coral gardens are superb. Vast table corals support a multitude of marine life and provide an almost irresistible invitation to explore further.
Diving Christmas Island means diving virgin waters. If you love exploring it is a trip to consider. Water temperatures are a warmish 28C most of the year round, but for longer dives a thick wetsuit is appropriate. Just off the small port of Flying-Fish Cove is an excellent, easy dive, great to do at night. The fringing reef drops to 5m and a gradual slope of sand and coral boulders extends to the outer reef. A school of barracuda greets you, convict surgeons move along algae-covered boulders and silver jacks circle beneath the surface. In the shallower water gather surgeonfish, triggerfish, scorpionfish, goatfish and giant clams. Adjacent to the cove is Administrator's Wall, which drops to 50m before becoming a sandy slope. On the wall hawkfish, angelfish, trumpets, groupers and a school of adult midnight snappers approach divers with curiosity. Sometimes thousands of fusiliers sweep by. At night on the wall, yellow tube corals bloom, and lobster and shrimp eyes glimmer. Just to the west of here lies a wrecked Nor-wegian phosphate freighter, the Eidsvold, torpedoed by the Japanese in WW2. Today she lies between 4m and 25m, providing shelter for a variety of marine creatures. Where land meets sea in the north, the power of the ocean has chiselled undercuts, caves and fissures into the limestone cliff. There is no need to hang around the anchor chain for safety stops - dives are much better ended in the shallows by entering these hollows. You could even surface in a cave to view the stalactites. On calm days, dive trips go to the windward side of the island to search for large schools of pelagic fish: bronze whaler sharks, hammerheads, mantas and sometimes oceanic white tips. Occasionally tiger sharks have been sighted. There is also a population of hawksbill turtles on the reefs. Green turtles can be observed in the waters from July to the end of September, when they come ashore to nest on the sand and shingle beaches on the island's eastern side. From December to March whale sharks migrate to the waters around Christmas Island to feed on the eggs of the red crab, which spawn in the ocean in their millions. Along the northern shore, Submarine Rock is a deeper drift dive along a wall with overhangs covered with table corals and gorgonias. Manta rays can be encountered here; spinner dolphins ride the bow wave of the dive boat. At Thundercliff Cave, it is worth hanging out for a while before ending dives, as whale sharks frequently come close to the shore in December. The next spot along the coast is sandy Westwhite Beach, where you can find lots of acropora coral and many sea anemones. White Beach is a beautiful spot for a lunch break - don't miss out on the snorkelling. This is the most promising site in which to spot whale sharks gliding through the water. At Boat Cave, on the north-west of the island, the dive boat anchors inside the calm waters of a cave. If you dive towards the entrance and leave the cave, you experience the ocean surge and the drop-off. Look out for hammerheads flying by at 50m! One of Christmas Island's most spectacular dive sites is Perpendicular Wall at North West Point. Clouds of fish sweep by. Giant tame batfish nuzzle you and nibble on your fins while you admire the wall's magnificent gorgonias. As there are large numbers of tuna and jack fish at this exposed location, big pelagics frequently hang around there. On the island's east side are dive sites for the winter months - Greta Beach and Dolly Beach. The reef is continuously being destroyed by the pounding waves on this side of the island. But remarkably, the new coral takes only a few years to establish itself on the heaps of ruined staghorn coral. When it is calm, the eastern side of the island has an unusual shore dive site, the Grotto. Usually you can hear the ocean lapping at the cavern entrance. You submerge, and dive through a rock opening into the ocean to explore a magnificent reef with overhangs at 25m with great, gigantic gorgonia fans below it. It can be dived only from November to January, when the sea is calm. White tip reef sharks frequent the waters as well as bronze whalers. The sea is also calm from May to October. But if you are dreaming of swimming with a whale shark, the period from December to March is the best. Dive trips are then organised to the east coast, as the north-westerly monsoons set in. When conditions are really harsh and the diving itinerary allows only beach diving, there is a good chance of seeing hawksbill turtles on the east coast. Take the time to explore the island on foot. There are scenic lookouts like Margaret Knoll where haunting fruit bats circle above your head. Hike through the rainforest at the Dales and take a refreshing bath at Hugh's Waterfall. You will find clues to the island's early heritage in the many splendidly adorned ornamental oriental temples. If you like the idea of listening to the earth roar, the blowholes on the island's south side are a 'must see'. Millions of years of nature at work have washed out deep holes and crevices. Whenever a wave thunders against the coast, the power of the ocean bursts up as a 40m whistling water fountain. Christmas Island's inhabitants are friendly and helpful. A pleasant South-east Asian atmosphere pervades the place. You can feel it all the time, whether sampling a band at the Rumah Tinggi Tavern or enjoying a decompression beer at the Golden Bosun Bar.
Details: Christmas Island Visitor Information Centre, PO Box 63, Christmas Island, Indian Ocean, W. Australia 6798 (tel. (00 61) 91 648382; fax (00 61) 91 648080); Indian Ocean Diving Academy, P0 Box 340, Christmas Island, Indian Ocean, West Australia 6798 (tel./fax. (00 61) 91 648090).