Christmas Island

By Alina Suchanski

Located in the Indian Ocean, 350 kilometres south of Java, Indonesia, Christmas Island has a stormy history that actually has little to do with Christmas. It was named by English captain William Mynors, who discovered it on Christmas Day 1643. Today it's a lush, off-the-beaten-path tourist destination famed for its caves and coral reefs. The biggest attraction is the yearly migration of millions of red crabs down to the sea to spawn.

Christmas Island is an Australian territory, not to be confused with another Christmas Island or Kiritimati, a Pacific Ocean coral atoll known for nuclear testing on and around the island by the United Kingdom in the late 1950s, and by the United States in 1962.

The Indian Ocean Christmas Island is the tip of a 4000-metre-tall volcano, of which just 400 metres stands above the sea. With an area of just 135 square kilometres and a long way

By Alina Suchanski

Located in the Indian Ocean, 350 kilometres south of Java, Indonesia, Christmas Island has a stormy history that actually has little to do with Christmas. It was named by English captain William Mynors, who discovered it on Christmas Day 1643. Today it’s a lush, off-the-beaten-path tourist destination famed for its caves and coral reefs. The biggest attraction is the yearly migration of millions of red crabs down to the sea to spawn.

Christmas Island is an Australian territory, not to be confused with another Christmas Island or Kiritimati, a Pacific Ocean coral atoll known for nuclear testing on and around the island by the United Kingdom in the late 1950s, and by the United States in 1962.

The Indian Ocean Christmas Island is the tip of a 4000-metre-tall volcano, of which just 400 metres stands above the sea. With an area of just 135 square kilometres and a long way to its nearest neighbours, the island had been of no interest to other countries and for more than two centuries after its discovery, it remained uninhabited.

This changed in 1887 with the detection of pure phosphate of lime on the island in the form of guano which led to its annexation by the British Crown on 6 June 1888. Phosphate mining began in 1899 using workers from Singapore, British Malaya, and China, who formed the majority of the original population of the island. Today it is home to about 2000 residents. The main settlement is Flying Fish Cove at the northwest end of the island. Several languages are spoken, including English, Mandarin, Malay, and Cantonese. Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism are the major religions.

During WW2, the island was briefly occupied by the Japanese, before being reclaimed by the Brits in 1945. In 1958 Britain transferred authority over Christmas Island from Singapore to Australia, a transaction that cost the Aussies $20 million as compensation to Singapore for the loss of earnings from the phosphate revenue.

From the late 1980s, boats carrying asylum seekers began landing on the island, mainly departing from Indonesia. One of them was a Norwegian ship, MV Tampa carrying 438 Afghan and Iraqi refugees rescued from a drowning, overloaded Indonesian fishing boat in 2001. The Australian government stopped the asylum seekers from disembarking on Christmas Island, causing a worldwide controversy and a standoff between Australia, Indonesia, and Norway; none of whom wanted to take responsibility for the asylum seekers. Eventually, New Zealand took 150 refugees from Tampa and the others were sent to an Australian refugee detention centre on Nauru Island.

In 2006, the Christmas Island Immigration Reception and Processing Centre (commonly known as the immigration detention centre) containing approximately 800 beds, was constructed on the island. The number of asylum seeker arrivals soon outgrew the capacity of the detention centre. The detainees staged a number of protests against the conditions and length of time people were held there. The centre was closed in October 2018. In 2020, it was used as a Coronavirus quarantine facility for returning citizens of Australia.

The use of Christmas Island as a refugee detention centre has tarnished its reputation as a tourism destination. In recent years, its Australian administration has been trying to remedy this by promoting the island’s natural beauty.

In 2015, Australian landscape photographer William Patino (now living in New Zealand) became part of this effort when he was commissioned by the Christmas Island Tourism Association to accompany two independent journalists on a five-day promotional jaunt. He was surprised by how beautiful the island was and says that what he saw by far exceeded his expectations. “The diversity of this place is like no other. The wild, rugged coastline, coral limestone pinnacles, caves, blowholes, and tiny, picturesque islands around its shore; the rain forest, crabs everywhere, booby birds: it was all different to anything I’d seen before,” he says.

Asked if he would recommend Christmas Island as a tourism destination, Patino says that it would appeal to a certain type of tourist. “It’s not glamorous; not very commercialised. It’s good for people wanting to get off-grid, somewhere different – amazing and unique, but very basic.”

According to Patino’s blog, “Sea caves, abundant marine life and vibrant coral reefs make this place a playground for underwater adventurists, particularly with the balmy ocean temperatures.”

But there is a downside. “They [Christmas Island Tourism Association] took us to a beautiful beach, which I was to photograph. Unfortunately, it was covered by plastic rubbish carried over from Indonesia by the sea currents and tides,” Patino bemoans.

Because of its geographical isolation and low human disturbance, Christmas Island is home to some unique species of invertebrates, birds, and marine animals.

After concerns were voiced about the impact of phosphorus mining on the island’s endemic flora and fauna, the Christmas Island National Park was established in 1980. Since then, the park has been enlarged to include most of the rainforest, covering the area of 85 km2, or 63% of the island.

One of nature’s most incredible phenomena – the red crab mass migration, plays out here every year. Each November, when the moon is in its third-quarter, millions of these large bright-coloured crabs leave the rainforest and crawl over roots, roads, and rocks to the ocean to breed. Their numbers are hard to estimate. In his BBC Earthseries documentary ‘The Trials of Life’, Sir David Attenborough quotes their numbers to be 120 million. He says that when it’s time to spawn, each female releases about 100,000 eggs into the ocean. The eggs hatch immediately on contact with water and the hatchlings stay in the ocean for a month, returning to the island in December as baby crabs.

Another amazing crustacean is the giant robber crab (a.k.a. coconut crab), with a leg span of up to a metre and a life expectancy of a hundred years. There may be as many as one million robber crabs on Christmas Island.

Despite their huge numbers, the populations of red crabs and other endemic species are threatened by the arrival of the invasive yellow crazy ant which was accidentally introduced between 1915 and 1934, and, without any native ant species to compete against, rapidly spread across most of the island.

Christmas Island is home to some interesting bird species with peculiar names, such as boobies and noddies. Brown boobies, Abbott’s boobies and red-footed boobies are native to this island. Boobies are known for their bizarre mating dance which involves lifting their large, webbed feet and showing off their wings.

Another bird endemic to the island is the imperial pigeon, which is similar to New Zealand kererū (wood pigeon). The golden bosun or white-tailed tropicbird is so iconic it made it to the Christmas Island official flag. The common noddy is the smallest of Christmas Island’s seabirds. There are around 5,000 breeding pairs on the island. The many unusual birds make Christmas Island a desirable destination for bird watchers.

The coral reefs in its shallow, warm coastal waters provide shelter for a variety of marine species and are a snorkelling and scuba diving paradise.

With all its natural wonders, Christmas Island has much to offer any tourist looking for a truly off-the-beaten-track adventure.

Snorkelling and particularly diving is quite popular here and it was quite evident why. Sea caves, abundant marine life and vibrant coral reefs make this place a playground for underwater adventurists, particularly with the balmy ocean temperatures.
Photo: William Patino, 2018

Sources: 1. Christmas Island; 2. Christmas Island Detention Centre, Wikipedia 3. The Trials of Life Collection, BBC Earth

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