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The first thing you’ll see rising above the horizon as Coral Geographer nears the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are palm trees swaying in the breeze. Emerging from a cobalt-blue Indian Ocean, this horseshoe-shaped string of low-lying atolls rimmed by powder-soft sand appear adrift upon a turquoise lagoon. Beach expert Brad Farmer named Cossies Beach at Direction Island the best in Australia.
The thousands of palm trees are the legacy of a copra plantation established by the original ‘King of the Cocos Islands,’ Scottish merchant seaman John Clunies-Ross. In the 1820’s, Clunies-Ross ruled this sunshine-blessed paradise as his own private kingdom, bringing in indentured Malay labourers to work his coconut plantation. Their 500-odd Cocos Malay descendants, plus a handful of Australian government employees, make up the entire population of Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
One year before Coral Expeditions’ first Great Barrier Reef cruise in 1985, Cocos residents voted to become a democratically run, self-governing Australian territory. Self Determination Day is the biggest festival of the year and Coral Geographer’s visit is timed to join in the celebrations. The festival promises a beguiling clash of Cocos Malay dances, Scottish line dancing and a colourful boat regatta between traditional jukong sailing boats.
Cocos’ remote location makes it a significant habitat and rookery for seabirds – oft-sighted species include red footed boobies, noddies, white terns, frigate birds and the Rufus night heron. The ridiculously aquamarine lagoon rimmed by Direction, West and Home Islands is inhabited by turtles, manta rays, reef sharks, dolphins and colourful tropical fish.
In stark contrast to beach-lined Cocos, Christmas Island’s landscape is all craggy outcrops befitting its topography as the flat-topped summit of a 4,500m underwater mountain (Switzerland’s Matterhorn is 4,478m). With just 360m of the mount visible, the island’s near-vertical underwater cliffs make it a world-class scuba diving and snorkelling destination.
In fact, the natural world dominates life here, and much of Christmas Island’s flora and fauna is protected by national park which covers more than 60% of the island.
A mammoth robber crab population, with their gigantic size that sees them weigh as much as 4kg, command the spotlight, exceeded only in numbers by 100 million or so red crabs whose annual spawning is considered one of the world’s greatest migrations. Endemic seabirds like endangered Abbott’s boobies and Christmas Island frigate birds nest here as well as migratory great cormorants and lesser frigate birds being regular visitors.
Beyond these extraordinary wildlife watching opportunities, Christmas Island is graced with stands of rainforest pierced by waterfalls and caves carved by freshwater springs and pummelling seas. Sea cliffs edge much of the 80km long coastline, giving way momentarily to picturesque coves and beaches bookended by weathered limestone outcrops.
Home to a harmonious multicultural community who have themselves travelled far across the seas, Christmas Islanders embrace visitors to their remote island outpost.