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© Pete Atkinson 2012
Cocos (Keeling). by Pete Atkinson
As we lined up for the strip we could see 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, 36 km to the north. He hoped that no camera gear was in our suitcase still languishing in Kuala Lumpur. Fortunately it contained only non-essentials for the tropics like 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 sea birds including the endemic Cocos buff- banded rail. The passage between Cocos (Keeling) and Pulu Keeling is open ocean, with swells driven by trade winds 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 hoodlum) 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. Captain von Muller was highly regarded for his gracious treatment of prisoners. On 9th 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 light cruiser HMAS Sydney which had been escorting a troop convoy nearby. Sydney had heavier guns with longer range. After a crippling bombardment SMS Emden was beached at Pulu Keeling. While beached, 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 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 props 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 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 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 way off the beaten track, not only because it’s in the middle of nowhere. Flights are expensive and not entirely reliable. Perhaps that’s why it only receives 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 8.5 km to leeward across the lagoon and has the airstrip, one restaurant, one cafe, a bar and 120 Australians. The road end to end is 11km. Traffic hazards include goats, crabs, erosion and high tides. Australian law applies so wear a seat belt, or a helmet if you are riding a bicycle.
Parts of the atoll are beautiful, there is excellent surfing and kite-surfing and interesting diving. And if you want a palm-covered island with crystal clear water all to yourself for the day, it is 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. (The airline needs a viable alternate destination if they can’t land at Cocos (Keeling), and Christmas Island can’t be designated as an alternate as it’s another remote area strip.) If you are 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 all our clothes managed to fly a week late from Kuala Lumpur. 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 to the 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, the southern wall covered with live coral, riddled with caves and teeming with fish. Some of the fish are regulars, like a barracuda about one and a half metres long and a black tip reef shark with its dorsal missing. There are humphead parrotfish, napoleon wrasse, reef sharks, morays and groupers. 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 27C and it doesn’t get much colder. A 3mm is all you need for a dive, and no suit is needed for The Rip.
Direction Island is a favorite anchorage for yachties on their way across the Indian Ocean. It’s idyllic in every way, or at least it 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. We spent the night on Ginseng, a ferrocement yacht belonging to double-circumnavigators Derek and Gill Scott. Lubricated with G&T, we reminisced about old yachtie pals spread all over the globe, as the outline of the palms disappeared into the sky.
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 sea grass beds, there’s 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 bottle nose dolphins, mantas, reef sharks and an area with several encrusted cannons. Last year they saw humpbacks, whale sharks and tiger sharks too. It’s remote and 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 managed to pull seven men out but two died later from their injuries. Seven more were lost with the plane and never recovered. The two Pratt and 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 sea grass 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 – which 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 is plentiful accommodation on the island and several guest houses. The most basic is$105 a night and a buffet-style meal at the Tropika Restaurant is $27 a head. It may seem expensive, but the costs of doing anything, especially running a business there are daunting. It’s just so far away 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 large 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 nineteenth centuryto work the copra (dried coconut flesh) plantations. They are Muslims and they have a fascinating culture, a mix of Malay and Scottish. Even though Queen Victoria gave the islands to George Clunies-Ross and his descendents in 1886 in perpetuity, the islands became an Australian Territory on 23 November 1955. John Cecil Clunies-Ross sold Home Island to Australia in 1978 for A$6,250,000.
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 ten 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 black tip 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 the glass bottomed RIB belonging to Geof 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 black tip reef sharks and greys to the surface. For some reason that’s one place we didn’t feel inclined to snorkel!
Getting there: Virgin Australia fly to Cocos (Keeling) from Perth via Christmas Island three times a week.
Christmas Island Air charter 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’s only one operator Cocos Dive. www.cocosdive.com Booking ahead isessential. Have a look at Karen Willshaw’s site www.cocosbarefootphotography.com
to get an overview of the stunning photographic opportunities.
When to go: There’s great diving all year round. Lighter winds are during cyclone season, November to April.
Money: ATM machines are virtually non-existent. Plastic is used everywhere, but take some $A for smaller purchases. There’s a Westpac bank in Christmas Island and a Commonwealth bank agency in Cocos (Keeling), but the latter won’t change money, nor can you use any other bank’s card to withdraw money.
Accommodation: Castaway is mid-range and nice. Homestead is one of the best guest houses. Cocos Beach Motel starts at $105 per night for basic accommodation.
Travel insurance: This is one destination where travel insurance is highly recommended, as flight cancellations may leave you with an accommodation bill you hadn’t expected.
Further information: www.cocoskeelingislands.com.au
1. Deserted picture-postcard beach on West island.
2. Propeller and shaft strut of the SMS Emden.
3. One of the propellers and shaft strut of the SMS Emden.
4. Frigate birds fill the air above Pulu Keeling.
5. Fairy terns breed at Pulu Keeling.
6. Darin Limsuansub (my wife!) with a black tip reef shark in The Rip at Direction Island. 7. Darin with a devil scorpionfish in The Rip.
8. Pete Atkinson and Derek Scott shooting the breeze on Ginseng anchored at Direction
9. Pratt and Whitney engines of the Catalina JX 435 lie a few metres from each other.
10. The wing of the Catalina lies in the sea grass beds.
11. Darin snorkelling over the hard “broccoli” coral near Direction Island.
12. Batfish school at a dive site called “The Entrance”.
13. Lobophyllia coral along the drop-off.
14. Darin with one of several cannons at Gerhard’s cannon site.
15. Darin with one of several cannons at Gerhard’s cannon site.
16. The solo resident male dugong, Kat.
17. Manta ray at 40m in the lee of West Island.
18. Spinner dolphins come to the dive boat in the lagoon.