Christmas Island: A gift that keeps on giving

Your first sight of Christmas Island will likely be from the plane – steep volcanic slopes bedecked with lush green foliage rising from a turquoise sea. You can tell it’s going to be special even from this height, but it’s at sea level you’ll quickly find the wildlife and the scenery, above and below water, is something else again.

While Christmas Island is famous for the mass migration of millions of red land crabs moving en masse from the forest to the ocean once a year it has plenty of other marine action to sink your claws into. Christmas Island is the top of an extinct, steep sided volcano that rises 6,000m from the sea floor located 360km south of Java in the Indian Ocean, 10° south of the equator, with abundant sunshine and nutrient-rich up-wellings. Steep-sided walls are covered in pristine coral reefs down to 20 to 30m where great gorgonian sea fans take over.

Frigatebird. Photo: Yvonne McKenzie

Conditions like this are perfect for all kinds of fish; from the smallest to the largest, the whale shark. Christmas Island boasts about 650 identified species. The coral reefs are home to great shoals of herbivores, and parrotfish, surgeons and unicornfish working their way along the corals on every dive. On the near-vertical walls, the fusiliers stream up and down in search of plankton, and in the pocillopora coral heads, humbugs and hawkfish play hide and seek with divers.

Dive sites are all the way around the island; not all are steep walls. Some bays have shallow reefs sloping down to the drop-off. In sheltered areas feather stars congregate creating small and colourful meadows, and it’s here that turtles are often found resting. Giant morays hiding amongst the corals and rocks keep watch, as wrasse, rabbitfish and titan triggers cruise by.

Christmas Island has its share of caverns and caves easily explored by divers who can surface inside the caverns to see great stalactites hanging above them. There is no urban pollution from the island; being 300km from any neighbour means the waters are exceptionally clear. It is often possible to see reef sharks and eagle rays patrolling 20m below.

Reef. Photo: Tobias Friedrich

Being steep-sided allows deep water pelagics to come in close to the shoreline where divers are often treated to some exceptional, though often brief, encounters with ocean going manta rays, scalloped Hammerhead sharks and whale sharks. This occurs particularly towards the end of the annual red crab migration when the abundance of crab larvae in the water attracts them to the island.

At the surface, the local pod of spinner dolphins seem to recognise the sound of the dive boat’s engine and will come over to play for a while in its bow wave, usually hanging around long enough for you to grab a mask and snorkel and join them in the water. Even snorkelling from the beach in Flying Fish Cove it’s possible to count 60 species of marine life in 60 minutes.

Christmas Island can be dived year round as the waters are warm (26-29°C), there’s very little current, and there’s always a lee shore somewhere if the wind is blowing.

Thundercliff. Photo: Tobias Friedrich

Signature dive sites

Spend a few days on the island and you are bound to visit these signature dive sites.

Perpendicular Wall

Perpendicular Wall falls away almost vertically a few metres from the surface with corals leaning out as far as they can to catch the sunlight. Large gorgonians extend at right angles to the wall to catch as much as they can from passing currents, in a riot of colour teeming with fusiliers which seem to take great pleasure in vertically schooling up and down the wall while the other reef fish travel horizontally along it.

The dive starts under an overhang with fantastic sea fans then falls away towards the north-west tip of the island. The wall literally teems with life: great coral and shoals of fish both small and big. Keep your eye out in the blue; whalesharks, hammerheads, reef sharks and other pelagics love Perpendicular Wall as much as divers!!

Thundercliff Cave

Whaleshark. Photo: Kirsty Faulkner

In fact there’s more than just one cave; it’s a system of caves you can follow deep inside the island. But most divers visit the first two: a big open chamber with stunning blue light streaming through the entrance; and a second cave beyond and accessible via the first.

Surfacing within the air-filled cavern, stalagmites and stalactites cast silhouettes on the walls. A rocky platform serves as a handy exit point – divers can remove their gear and walk back through the underground cave following a brackish water stream where, after 50m, there’s a pool of water and, turning off the torchlight, a milky way of light is revealed.

Lantern fish create a spectacular light show making it appear as if the night sky is being reflected upside down. Returning to the cave entrance, the sun’s rays are filtering through the iridescent blue of the Indian Ocean and framed by the cave’s sweepers which call the cave entrance home. Outside there is a flatter reef at about 12m with lots of the usual reef suspects: leatherjackets, several

Flying Fish Cove

Manta. Photo: Steve Fraser

Christmas Island’s Flying Fish Cove rates as one of the best shore dives in the world, and one you can easily do on your own, with a tank rented from one of the local dive operators. And it’s more or less in the centre of town.

Step into the turquoise water from the beach of the boat ramp, and within a few metres you are surrounded by pristine coral gardens. Or for a more adventurous dive, drop in at night. Jump off the end of the jetty, and follow the sand patch out until you hit the drop off. Turn left and work your way along the reef down the drop off to about 18m. After 20 minutes work your way back along the reef until you reach the sandy floor, then turn sharp right towards the shore line, working your way back along the sandy shallows and navigating back to the jetty, which at night, is lit up like airport landing lights to guide you back in.

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