Destination Christmas Island
In addition to recreational scuba diving, there is plenty to see and do on Christmas Island.
Story and photos by Deborah L. Leenutaphong
This idyllic island, which lies in the Indian Ocean some 2,600 kilometres northwest of Perth and just 500 kilometres south of Jakarta, was named by Captain William Mynors of the British East India Company when he sailed past it on Christmas Day in 1643.
It was more than 200 years later in 1888 that Pelham Aldrich and J. J. Lister arrived here on the HMS Egeria to collect plant, animal and rock specimens for examination and classification. Of the rock samples that they gathered, many were of pure phosphate of lime, the discovery of which led to the island being annexed and settled by the United Kingdom that same year. It remained a property of the UK until 1957 when sovereignty was transferred to Australia.
Soon after settlement in 1888, phosphate mining on the island began in earnest and it is currently the island's largest employer. It employs approximately ten percent of the 1,400 people who live here and is the island's most important economic producer.
Despite phosphate mining, the environment and the creatures that call the island home have fared well. This is thanks in part to the mining company's sophisticated modern open-cut mining and phosphate dust extraction methods which limit the amount of debris and dust that enter the atmosphere.
A beautiful great frigatebird preening at its nesting site.
As part of its own preservation efforts, the Australian government has set aside 63 percent of the island as national park covering large areas of pristine and ancient rainforest, freshwater mangroves as well as crucial habitats of the endangered Abbott's booby, the Christmas Island frigatebird, and the blue and the red crabs. The park extends offshore 50 metres beyond the low water mark to preserve and protect the marine ecology also.
Great pains are taken to rehabilitate the areas that have been affected by mining. While the mining company is not required to carry out the rehabilitation itself, it does pay a conservation levy to the Australian government's Christmas Island Minesite to Forest Rehabilitation Programme (CIMFR) which was launched by the Australian government in 1989.
In the beginning the main objective of the CIMFR was to preserve the nesting grounds of the Abbott's booby, an endangered seabird whose last remaining nesting sites are in the island's rainforest. Over time, though, the organisation's conservation efforts have widened to include rehabilitation of the rainforest on sites where it once had stood undisturbed.
Within its large areas of preserved ancient rainforest, mangrove forest, beautiful craggy limestone sea and inland cliffs, caves, beaches and the marine environment, terrestrial and marine life thrive.
On land it is the land crabs and seabirds which are the most noticeable creatures on the island. There are 22 species of land crab, of which the blue crab, the Jackson's, and the Christmas Island red crab for which the island is best known, are thought to be endemic.
A banded boxer shrimp standing sentinel.
As for birds, Christmas Island is very popular among birders with the more than 80 species of migrant birds that stop there. The most numerous of which is the red-footed booby which nests in trees and along the shore terrace. The most widespread, though, is the brown booby which nests on the ground near sea and inland cliffs.
Other birds include the Abbot's booby, the Christmas Island frigatebird, the great frigatebird, the common noddy, two species of bosun as well as ten native land and shore birds including the inquisitive Christmas Island thrush and the Christmas Island Imperial pigeon.
The array of fauna is limited, though, by the rocky and not-very-fertile phosphate-rich soil but there are reported to be 135 plant species of which 16 are endemic. The dense rainforest boasts 25 species of trees on whose branches grow various types of fern, orchids and vines.
The marine environment, on the other hand, is very diverse and boasts an abundance of beautiful hard corals, dramatic walls, large coral bommies and underwater caves. Christmas Island is home to 575 species of fish and 88 species of reef-building corals, with blue coral being the most commonly found.
Among the other marine life found around the island are various types of crabs and shrimp, mollusks, dolphins, sailfish, turtles, batfish, octopus, tuna, dragon morays, ribbon eels, various moray eels, nudibranchs, wahoo, green and hawksbill turtles, sea kraits, bronze whalers, silky sharks, surgeon fish, butterfly fish, sponges, and Gorgonian sea fans to name but a few.
The red Christmas Island crab, for which the island is known, at Flying Fish Cove waiting to spawn
With its diverse unspoiled habitats and varied and unique flora and fauna, there is plenty to see and do on Christmas Island. One can go snorkeling and scuba diving, bird watching, hiking, biking, fishing, boating, golfing, kayaking and sunbathing on the island's beaches. And at the right time of the year, usually some time from October to December, visitors are treated to the impressive annual Christmas Island red crab migration when millions of crabs march out of the forests and across the island toward the sea to spawn. It is a sight to behold.
So the next time you find yourself looking for an unspoiled, uncrowded tropical vacation destination, keep Christmas Island in mind. It truly is a rare gem.
For more information, visit Christmas Island's official website at http://www.christmas.net.au.
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