AS WE LINED UP for the strip, we could see that the ocean below was unusually calm. Dieter Gerhard, owner of Cocos Dive, greeted us with the news that at first light we would be leaving for Pulu Keeling, 22 miles north.
He hoped that no camera gear was languishing in our suitcase, which was still in Kuala Lumpur. Fortunately it had contained only non-essentials for the tropics, such as clothes.
Pulu Keeling National Park is about as remote as you can get. Visitors are rare. A closed atoll with a brackish lagoon, it is home to millions of seabirds, including the endemic Cocos buff-banded rail.
The passage between Cocos (Keeling) and Pulu Keeling is open ocean, with swells driven by trade winds for much of the year, so very few boats make the trip. It is even rarer to get a chance to dive there.
Dieter used his 8.5m aluminium dive-boat Putri Laut (which means something about a princess rather than a festering yob) for the trip north over the lazy swell. On board was a descendant of one of the crew of the SMS Emden.
This German light cruiser had a spectacular career in the Indian Ocean, capturing or sinking 31 vessels, and Captain von Muller was highly regarded for his gracious treatment of prisoners.
On 9 November, 1914, Emden had sent a small contingent ashore at Direction Island to destroy the Eastern Telegraph Company wireless telegraph and cable station.
While they were ashore, Emden was engaged by the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney, which had been escorting a troop convoy nearby.
Sydney had heavier guns with longer range. After a crippling bombardment, Emden was beached at Pulu Keeling, and further shelling persuaded her to surrender. This was Australia’s first naval victory.
The German shore party commandeered a local schooner, Ayesha, which they sailed to Sumatra, eventually returning to Germany seven months later. Surviving crew from the Emden were allowed the rare honour of adding the suffix Emden to their names. It was one of only two vessels ever to be awarded the Iron Cross by Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Over the years, much of the wreck was salvaged, and the site is exposed to swell from the Southern Ocean. It is only a few metres deep and, on a good day, an easy dive. The boat can’t anchor at the Emden site, so the divers went in relays; the visiting film crew first, the hoi polloi and us later.
The propellers and drive-shafts are prominent, as are 105mm guns concreted into the reef.
There’s a no-touch policy from Parks Australia, which might have been better applied to the Japanese salvors who in 1950 ripped the ship apart with explosives and shipped much of it off to Japan, or to the swells that thunder in emphatically for much of the year.
We dived on the north coast of Pulu Keeling too, a thriving coral wall, but the large schools of fish you might expect were absent, and there were few sharks. But we dived without current. When it rips past the end of the island, as it often does, I suspect that it’s a spectacular dive – if you can hang on.
It may be a national park, but you are allowed to fish. There’s not much point regulating what you can’t police.
The police RIB was there too, for the dive. It will fly at 60 knots, but it has a transponder that tells tales, so it’s restricted to 25 knots for health and safety reasons.
In the lee of Pulu Keeling, where we anchored for lunch, green turtles were clambering over one another to get their genes represented in the next generation. Or playing piggy-back.
Cocos (Keeling) is in the middle of nowhere, and flights are expensive and not entirely reliable. Perhaps that’s why it receives only about 30 visitors a week.
The atoll belongs to Australia, although it lies closer to Sri Lanka than it does to Perth in Western Australia. It’s flatter than a nit, with 23 islands necklaced around a shallow lagoon.
On the windward side lies Home Island, home for 400 Cocos Malay people. West Island is five miles to leeward across the lagoon and has the airstrip, one restaurant, one cafe, a bar and 120 Australians.
The road end to end is seven miles long. Traffic hazards include goats, crabs, erosion and high tides.
Parts of the atoll are beautiful, with interesting diving. And if you want a palm-covered island with clear water all to yourself for the day, that’s easy to arrange. Exclusivity is ensured by the difficulty and expense of getting there.
From Perth, you can have a week in Bali, including accommodation, for the price of the flight to Cocos. If it’s raining in Jakarta, the plane to Cocos (Keeling) might not fly.
If you’re flying from Kuala Lumpur on the weekly charter flight to Christmas Island, there’s a chance that the flight will be postponed in the wet season.
The cloud base is often 500m, but the altitude of the strip at Christmas is 270m. All our flights worked, but the bag with our clothes arrived a week late. Luckily we were staying in Cocos (Keeling) for six weeks.

ONE OF THE BEST THINGS in Cocos (Keeling) is not a dive at all, but a snorkel. Called The Rip, it’s a narrow channel east of Direction Island, where clear ocean water floods continuously into the lagoon, the strength of current depending on the tide, the swell and the phase of the moon. So anything up to about four knots.
You throw yourself into the water towards the seaward end and get blasted through towards the lagoon. There’s a safety rope if you can’t swim back, but swimming cross-current brings you into calm lagoon water for the trip back.
The Rip is about 7m deep, and the southern wall is covered with live coral, riddled with caves and teeming with fish.
Some are regulars, like a 1.5m barracuda and a blacktip reef shark with its dorsal fin missing. There are humphead parrotfish, Napoleon wrasse, reef sharks, morays and grouper. Because every visitor comes here, the fish are oblivious to people.
On the far side you can shelter in eddies behind the coral, so we would spend an hour there until we were cold. The water in October was 27°C and it doesn’t get much cooler.
Direction Island is a favourite anchorage for yachties on their way across the Indian Ocean.
It’s idyllic, or was until some bright spark decided to introduce four pages of rules about what you can and can’t do, and a fee to anchor.
One of the things I love about Cocos (Keeling) diving is the variety. There are steep coral walls dropping off into the abyss. There are shallow coral gardens. There’s the wreck of a Catalina flying-boat strewn through the seagrass beds, a fishing-boat wreck and areas of old junk from the dismantled telegraph station on Direction Island.
There’s a resident dugong, Kat, who likes to scratch himself on the anchor-line; spinner and bottlenose dolphins, mantas, reef sharks and an area with several encrusted cannons.
Not long ago they saw humpbacks, whale sharks and tiger sharks too. It’s an oasis for anything passing, so you can expect the unexpected.
Catalina JX 435 was on a flight from Red Hills Lake airbase in Madras via Colombo when it crashed into the lagoon at Cocos (Keeling). It attempted a downwind landing on a choppy lagoon. Bouncing once, it flipped over and caught fire before it sank.
Rescuers from Direction Island pulled seven men out, but two died later from their injuries. Seven more were lost with the plane and never recovered.
The two Pratt & Whitney engines now lie close to one another, but the debris field extends 600m to the south-west and most of the fuselage is missing. It is only a few metres deep to the seagrass beds, so you can explore the whole area in a couple of dives.
The atoll lagoon is shallow to the south, with circular depressions – blue holes – that you can see on Google Earth.
Not far from Direction Island is a large area of blue “broccoli coral”, something I had never seen before.

THERE ARE SEVERAL GUEST HOUSES on the island. The most basic, Cocos Beach Motel, costs Aus $105 a night and a buffet-style meal at the Tropika Restaurant is $27 a head. It may seem dear, but the costs of doing anything are daunting, so far from the mainland. There is Internet, but it’s not great.
Much has been spent on infrastructure by the Australian government, but like most government projects (awarded to private contractors) they consult first and then do what they want anyway.
So the wonderful new boat ramp is not quite strong enough for some of the boats that want to use it. Four wind turbines were shipped to the island. In 2009 two were up; now none of them work.
The Cocos Malays were originally brought in by John Clunies-Ross in the 19th century to work the copra (dried coconut flesh) plantations. Muslims, they have a fascinating culture, a mix of Malay and Scottish.
Queen Victoria gave the islands to George Clunies-Ross and his descendents in 1886 in perpetuity, and the islands became an Australian territory in 1955. John Cecil Clunies-Ross sold Home Island to Australia in 1978 for $6.25m.
There are probably few places in the world where you can have an idyllic island to yourself for the day. Prison Island lies on the windward side between uninhabited Direction Island and Home Island. You can walk round it in 10 minutes. Now it is heavily eroded, but the sand is perfect and the water is clear.
I can’t think of a better location for photography. You can attract blacktip reef sharks with a small offering and the palms provide shelter from the sun. You can walk there from Home Island at low tide, but I wouldn’t recommend it – we nearly had to spend the night after an error of judgment!
Better to hire a glass-bottomed RIB from Geoff Christie, whose demeanour redefines “laid-back”. He can take you to the Blue Holes, the broccoli coral, Direction Island and many other gems.
One of my favourites is his shark reef, where just the arrival of his boat will bring many blacktip reef sharks and greys to the surface. That was one place where we felt less inclined to snorkel!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Virgin Australia flies to Cocos (Keeling) from Perth via Christmas Island three times a week. Christmas Island Air charters a Malaysian Airlines plane for a weekly flight from Kuala Lumpur to Christmas Island. There’s an onward Virgin flight next day. Divers are allowed 10kg extra free baggage from Kuala Lumpur.
DIVING There is only one operator, Cocos Dive, www.cocosdive.com. Booking ahead is essential.
ACCOMMODATION Homestead one of the best guest-houses; Castaway is mid-range, www.cocoscastaway.com
WHEN TO GO Year round.
MONEY Australian dollars.
PRICES Cocos Dive offers a self-contained holiday house package based on two or more divers, with seven nights’ accommodation and four days’ diving including air-fills and lunches from Aus $1164pp.
FURTHER INFORMATION www.cocoskeelingislands.com.au, www.cocosbarefootphotography.com