Cocos Keeling - The 'Other' Cocos Islands

About Cocos (Keeling) Islands – some secrets you have to share!

Story by  Sarah-Jo Lobwein & Images by Brett Lobwein

Itching for sandy feet, salty skin and the urge to break free from everyday life, my husband and I spontaneously booked a late January escape in 2015 to an enticing coral island group we had heard about lazing in the waters of the Indian Ocean, approximately 2,750km north-west of Perth, Western Australia.

We had travelled to the remote Australian external territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands. This collection of approximately 27 coral islands at low tide, 26 in the main atoll plus North Keeling Island, are actually closer to East Java than the mainland of Australia. While Cocos Islands in Costa Rica are on many SCUBA divers’ bucket lists, these little known ‘other Cocos Islands’ are just a four-hour direct flight from Perth and should be definitely added to said list!

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands consist of two coral atolls, 24km apart, that formed atop of old volcanic seamounts, rising from a depth of 5000 metres. Geologically known as the Cocos Rise, bathymetric research shows these two peaks are part of an undersea range of mountains that includes Christmas Island known as the Vening Meinesz Seamounts. On large atolls such as Cocos, parts of the reef have been built by wind and wave action to form low island chains called atoll islands composed of coral limestone. Atolls are more or less circular coral reefs enclosing a lagoon without any land inside.

Only two of these islands are inhabited; with a combined population of approximately 600, this sun-kissed island paradise provides plenty of natural, uncrowded stretches of pristine beach. Cocos boasts a unique cultural heritage with Malay, Chinese and Australian descendants calling the islands home. The airport, the Cocos Dive shop and all main accommodations and food options are located on the 15km-long West Island amongst a small and welcoming expat community, and across the lagoon you will find local Home Islanders speaking Cocos Malay and English. Cocos Malay people have a strong Malay Muslim culture, many of whom are descendants of workers who were brought to the islands for copra production in 1826.

What’s in a name? Cocos History in a coconut-shell

In his 1805 sailing directory, British hydrographer James Horsburgh named the islands after the coconut Cocos nucifera and Captain William Keeling who is believed to have been the first European to sight the islands in 1609. Captain John Clunies-Ross, a Scottish trader sailing the Borneo for Alexander Hare, reached the islands in 1825 and sounded the main channel, dug wells, cleared area on the islands and planted palms, vegetables and cereals. The following year the merchant Alexander Hare himself arrived (with an entourage) to settle the islands, which became a powerhouse of copra production until 1987. During both World Wars the islands were strategic targets and some of the remains of the German Raider SMS Emden gunned down in 1914 by the Australian cruiser HMS Sydney still lie in the waters off Pulu Keeling National Park. West Island has played an important role in Australia’s biosecurity as a quarantine station operating until 2006.

Did you know?

Charles Darwin developed his theory of atoll formation during a visit to the Cocos Keeling Islands in 1836 aboard the HMS Beagle. In fact the islands were the ONLY coral atolls he visited, playing a central role in his discussion of coral reef development. In his publication on coral reefs in 1842, he was the first to propose the subsidence theory of coral reef formation and evolution based on his earlier fossil discoveries and this visit to the islands. That theory, still held valid today, explains the dynamics of the three categories of coral formations: fringe, barrier and atoll reefs. He suggested the up growth of coral reefs continued long after the seamounts that supported them subsided.

After Charles Darwin landed here on the HMS Beagle, he wrote: "I am glad we have visited these islands: such formations surely rank as the most wonderful objects of this world."

Getting to Cocos

Virgin Australia operates direct flights from Perth International Airport. Many people combine a trip to Cocos with Christmas Island (90-minute flight). As Cocos (Keeling) Islands are an external Australian territory, Australian citizens do not require a passport to fly from this international terminal, but will require an ID to clear customs.

Staying on Cocos – West Island

This is a true tropical island – coconut trees, iridescent waters, hot, humid and whisper-quiet balmy nights - especially during the doldrums. Do not forget your mosquito repellent! The natural beauty of the islands forces you to recharge your batteries, to unplug from social media, the bustling crowds and work distractions the moment you touch down on the tarmac.

If you are searching for five-star resorts with infinity pools, personal butlers, fine-dining restaurants, crowded beachfront bars and noisy nightlife then Cocos (Keeling) Islands are definitely not for you! There is a small supermarket where prices are elevated and items are limited – we suggest packing a few grocery items from Perth for breakfast especially if you have dietary requirements. The main restaurant in town central serves quality Western-Malay buffet and a-la-Carte food for lunch and dinner, and is a great opportunity to meet the friendly locals whilst watching the breathtaking sunset. Across the road is the central bar, the watering hole hosting tourists and locals.

Accommodation is mainly self-contained but the locals are happy to assist in any way they can. We enjoyed our stay at Cocos Castaway – located a short walk from the airport terminal (no transfers needed!) and a coconut’s throw from the Indian Ocean. Do not be put off by staying right next to the small airport. There are only a few commercially operated flights per week and Annelise greets you to take you directly to your relaxed, air-conditioned rooms.

Diving and Photography

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands support a diverse array of marine flora and fauna in their warm, stunning crystal clear waters. Visibility rarely drops below 30 metres (98 feet), and water temperatures average between 26 -29 degrees Celsius. Think turtles, manta rays, grey, white–tip and black-tip reef sharks, and cheeky bottlenose and spinner dolphins that regularly interact in the waters around the islands. The outer lagoon provides a sea grass feeding area for the elusive lone male dugong called Kat – a local resident for over 15 years!

The varied atoll terrain suits divers of all abilities, and the uncrowded dive sites in and outside the lagoon include reefs, caves, wrecks and drop offs – my favourite was the “Ski Run”! World-class diving puts you among gardens of hydrocorals, soft corals, sea fans, sea anemones, clams, stunning stony corals and black corals. Colourful varieties of nudibranchs, cleaner shrimp, echinoderms, and flatworms share the watery wonderland with barracuda, eels, rock cod, basslets, banner fish, surgeonfish, parrotfish, Napoleon wrasse, damsels, angelfish (including one endemic species) and butterfly fish.

It is very hard to choose what lens to set, with each dive site offering ample macro and wide angle opportunities at the same time – I suggest having a trusty dive buddy with the opposite type of lens! You might be about to dive for the pygmy angelfish, when Kat or the dolphins or a thresher shark suddenly show up!

Operators

Cocos Dive are your first (and only!) choice when diving Cocos (Keeling) Islands and they make diving this remote location a pleasure. Dieter Gerhard and Karen Willshaw provide a very personalised, experienced and accommodating service including transport, assistance with gear and an amazing lunch spread. They do not make promises on what you will see, but they always seem to deliver unique experiences – the luck of operating in paradise! It is recommended you book all dives before arriving on Cocos.

Dive highlights:

- My fleeting encounter with a thresher shark!

- Being introduced to the ONLY endemic fish species of Cocos (Keeling) Islands – the Cocos pygmy Angelfish, Centropyge joculator. Note to self - would have been great to have macro lens on instead of wide angle!

- Swimming with Spinner (Leaping Gray’s) and Bottlenose dolphins as they chased the wake of the boat as we approached Direction Island. There are only a few known locations in the world that you regularly get to witness two different species of dolphins interacting together!

- Bottlenose dolphins enticing me to play with their toy – a hapless White spotted puffer – Arothron hispidus

- Being graced with a visit from the Mantas at the Manta Service Station

- Baby black-tip reef sharks investigating the shallow sands of Scout Park at sunset

- Having my fingernails serviced by Hippolyte prideauxianan cleaner shrimp

- My brief encounter with Kat the dugong – one rub on the anchor chain and he was gone! One day Kat, one day!

- Being in the presence of Genicanthus belus - the male lives in depths of 45 metres and beyond! (Again, wish we had the macro lens!)

- Direction Island – perfect spot to picnic with the hermit crabs, break between dives, swimming and a safe anchorage spot. Has to be one of the best locations for a surface interval.

 

Surface interval – other Cocos activities

- Kite surfing, windsurfing, surfing, paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing, bird watching, art and cultural tours, island hopping, fishing, snorkeling, beach combing, pushbike and even a round of golf!

- If you are venturing all the way to Cocos Keeling Islands – you must include a trip to Christmas Island – and not just to meet the island’s famous crabs (hint: Whale sharks)!

- North Keeling Island, is the smaller atoll to the north protected within the Pulu Keeling National Park. It was proclaimed a national park in December 1995 and is ninety minutes away from Cocos' main atoll. It is listed as International Ramsar site and home to the remnants of the original Cocos flora and fauna including migratory and endemic birds species. Keep in mind it has restricted access, and you need to make arrangements before arrival.

Video Links:

Our films on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/143721095

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72dTv-1Wuqs

Web Links:

www.cocoskeelingislands.com.au

www.australiasindianoceanislands.com.au

Cocos Castaway Www.Cocoscastaway.com

Cocos dive

www.CocosDive.com, www.facebook.com/CocosDive, their trip advisor page

Pulu Keeling information

https://www.environment.gov.au/topics/national-parks/pulu-keeling-national-park/natural-environment/geology

Fortuyn Project (the search for an old Dutch shipwreck around Christmas and coco Keeling island) - aerial bathymetric lidar/sonar data images of Cocos Island

https://www.facebook.com/FortuynProject/photos/a.441450792731683.1073741835.310253622518068/441450802731682/?type=3

 

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Ocean Geographic Explorer (OGX) is a diving adventure resource with a special focus on marine photography and ocean conservation. Our content is divided up into six primary categories: Travel, Sea Science,  Equipment, Photography &Video, Conservation, and Lifestyle. We endeavor be a portal for people with all levels of interest in the marine environment  to learn about and become part of a community of like-minded ocean lovers who enjoy sharing their knowledge of and experiences in our fascinating ocean world.

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