Destination Cocos (Keeling) Islands
If you are looking for a tropical holiday destination with amazing diving the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island should be on your list. The islands are part of Australia, but are actually located closer to Indonesia.
We combined the two, which is easy enough since the flight from Perth stops first on Christmas Island and then on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. We started with Cocos and visited Christmas Island on the way back. Please also read our report on Christmas Island (coming soon).
The group of islands that form the coral atoll known as Cocos (Keeling) Islands are located 2700 km North West of Perth and 900 km to its nearest neighbour Christmas Island: remote and pristine. Of course this means unspoiled diving without the crowds and relaxation from the minute we arrived. And those photos with turquoise water, white sand and palm trees you normally see on posters at travel agents? It is all there...Paradise.
If you are looking for a five star resort, want to browse through air-conditioned shopping malls and have your skim milk decaf latte you are at the wrong place. Infrastructure for tourism as we know it is limited to several great places to stay, a telecom centre where you can access the Internet and the office of the Tourism Association/Historical Society. Mobile phone reception on Cocos is limited.
Surprisingly maybe, but the lack of tourism infrastructure added simplicity to our stay. It is easy to meet people, other tourists and locals alike, and since there is only one restaurant open at night for most nights and one club to have a drink at you don't have the pressure of having to make a choice where to go. If there are things you definitely can't live without you can just bring it along from the mainland, because you might not always be able to get it or the price might be higher than normal.
A big difference from diving on the mainland is that there is no tight schedule or rushing to get everything ready. With Dieter and Karen from Cocos Dive there was time to make sure all equipment was on board and working, safety procedures were in place and everybody was comfortable. For some of the novice divers amongst us it was made sure that they remembered the underwater hand signals. Organised and well prepared we would arrive at the boat ramp where the boat was launched. And, aaaaah, was that water nice and warm!
During most dives we managed to see Grey Reef Sharks, White-tip Reefsharks and Black-tip Reefsharks. The sharks could be seen swimming out in the blue or patrolling the reef. Manta Rays would come up from the deep and swim up over ledges, most of the time surprising us completely. Different species of surgeonfish, triggerfish, butterflyfish and angelfish were abundant everywhere.
The diving that Dieter and Karen called "desert diving" proved that sandy areas can harbour a lot of life. Remnants of boats, other debris, like steel drums teeming with lionfish or some very old canons formed the backdrop for an amazing rich fish life on otherwise sandy patches dotted with small colonies of Porites corals and the occasional bommie. We came across Indian Triggerfish, fluttering their fins and flashing their blue-striped pattern on their faces, Titan Triggerfish, fusiliers, surgeon fish and parrotfish none of which wanted to sit still enough to have their photo taken. Rough Flutemouth and Gold-spot Emperors were hanging out with Blue-striped Snapper. There were also shy but large moray eels, Midnight Snapper and Spotted Garden Eels. The timid yellow and blue Cocos Dwarf Angelfish, endemic to Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island, is quite common here as well as on the other reefs we dived. We also got to see a few octopus - most stayed in their burrows, but a couple were out and about, hunting and showing off their amazing colour changing patterns. And I have never seen so many differently coloured Christmas tree worms.
When diving one of the sites called Gerhard's Canons we were lucky enough to
meet Kat, the lonely dugong. She let us
come fairly close and her whistling could be heard long before she decided to
make herself visible. I could only think of how beautiful she was. Her tail
movements were slow, but must have been strong, as we could not keep up with
her when she decided to leave us. Magic!
We did see her a second time the next day, but she did not get as close again.
We also dived Unicorn's Playground and The Towers, both with unspoiled coral gardens and again lots of parrotfish, different species of angel and butterfly fish, surgeonfish and dart and fire gobies. Every inch was covered with healthy coral growth. At Cologne Gardens we marvelled at the amazing Gorgonian fans that grow there at 35 meters (and below).At a couple of different sites we witnessed the Big-eye Trevally courting display. The male turns white and hangs just above the female, while the female's colour changes to black.
Although we decided not to push our limits because of the remoteness of Cocos it is possible to get serious depths at most dive sites. The visibility was well above 25 meters at most places - we almost complained the one time it dipped just under 20 meters. There was no time limit set, other than the one of our computers, which added to the relaxed way of diving. Seventy minute dives were nothing unusual.
And then the surface intervals! Cocos Dive generally has their surface intervals at Direction Island, on a white tropical beach lined with palm trees. While food is being prepared you can go for a quick swim in the bay. Lunch is made up from freshly baked bread, cheese, tomatoes, avocado, cold meat, a salad or two, fruit, hot soup, coffee/tea, "deco bonbons" and plenty of water.
Whenever we would come across a pod of dolphins (and this happened on three days) Dieter and Karen always gave us the opportunity to snorkel with them. This was one of the many highlights. The dolphins, both spinners and bottlenose, were very inquisitive and came up close. Even the calves could hardly hold back, but their mums would not let them venture too close for obvious reasons. So there we were: frantically trying to imitate their gracious moves by performing pathetic dolphin kicks and duck diving in the hope they would come even closer. The dolphins were probably laughing their heads off and zoomed around us, clicking and chattering. What an experience, we were on a high!
At the south side of Direction Island is a small sea channel called the Rip.
The name really sounds worse than it is. This is an excellent snorkel site and
it is really something not to be missed. If you are on the edges of the Rip
you can calmly look at all the corals and fish in fantastic light. In the middle
of the channel a faster current can take you for a ride, but is very easy to
swim out of this current
and it is completely safe. We saw a Napoleon Wrasse, a few hunting Blue-fin
Trevally, several sharks, a "herd" of Hump-head Parrotfish, school
of smaller parrotfish, barracudas, angelfish, butterfly fish, neon damsels and
more and all that in only a few meters of clear water.
You can visit the Rip yourself on Saturdays when the ferry from West Island stops at Direction Island in the morning and goes back in the afternoon.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and we were not able to dive all sites (almost 30 in total), including the Cabbage Patch, a pristine reef formed by different species of Cabbage Corals.
We also did not dive the SMS Emden, a 118 meter long German warship that was sunk in 1914 by Australian troops and is now located in the shallows of North Keeling Island. Due to its remoteness this is a very rare treat.
a) you have to book the restaurant in advance, so the chef knows you are coming and trust me people have gone to bed hungry if they arrive after the early closing time.,
b) you do not arrive much later than 6.45 pm, see point a,
c) if you haven't brought your own provisions it is a bit tricky to do your own cooking, unless you can do magic with the limited range of the little supermarket, which more resembles a corner shop as far as stock goes.
"Tropika", the restaurant associated with the Cocos Beach Motel is open to the public 7 days a week. Here you get a very decent buffet dinner with a mix of Asian and Western food, salads and dessert. As I mentioned above: book, unless you prefer potato chips from the Cocos Club for dinner.
On Wednesday "Mutiara" is also open at night and offers beautiful banquet style traditional Malay food. Great food, lovely people. Despite the fact they are devout Muslims they will allow you to bring your own alcohol and glasses from the club next door. "Mutiara" comes highly recommended. Dinner is served early as well because the staff has to catch the ferry back to Home Island afterwards.
Every third week the Cocos Club has a food night on Friday (excluding school holidays) and that is a great way to meet more locals and get a cheap feed.
And how good is a holiday if you don't have a comfortable bed? We stayed at 'Cocos Seaview' and had the best sleep at night, which is very important with such a demanding schedule. The three semi self-contained rooms share a spacious verandah that looks out onto a huge frangipani tree, which flowers for most of the year and you can see the surf breaking in the background. Pepe, our friendly host, would make sure everything was in order and always made time to have a chat.
There is plenty to do for non-divers or during your day(s) de-gassing.
The West Island is flat, so it is easy enough to hop on a bike and ride to one of the remote little beaches where, as Dieter would say, "you can lay around in your birthday suit all day" with no one else around.
Across the lagoon from West Island lays Home Island, where the Cocos Malay people live. This island has a museum with information on the history of Home Island, the SMS Emden and the culture of the people that live there. On Tuesdays you can partake in a cultural tour organised by the local school children. This tour is very popular, extremely affordable and it is a good idea to book in advance. The children who are part of it are just so beautiful. When visiting Home Island just remember to wear appropriate clothing that covers shoulders and knees
The other islands are uninhabited, but can be visited by booking an island day tour. Imagine spending the day on the water, wandering along remote beaches and going for a quick dip in the blue, blue, blue water of the lagoon.
If people don't want to go diving or snorkelling a trip with the glass bottom boat is a great way to experience the underwater world of Cocos.
Coming away from Cocos Island we had to get used to speed limits again or rather the fact that everybody else drives faster than 30 km/h and the fact no one waves or says 'hello'. Aaah, the island life.
To sum it up, although it might seem like a bit of a journey to get to, on Cocos you can enjoy a tropical holiday destination on a remote island with fantastic diving, the food is safe to eat and water is safe to drink, there are no tropical diseases and no hassles with having to change currency. Cocos is a very friendly and safe place. All this is the same for Christmas Island (see the 2nd part of this report), where there is some more world class diving to do. The two destinations can be easily combined into one trip and each have their own uniqueness: under and above the water.
National Jet flies to Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island leaving from Perth twice a week. As a little tip and if you book well in advance, it is possible to use Qantas frequent flyer points and you currently need 30,000 points for the return trip.
It is possible to fly to Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island from Denpasar, Bali if you come from Europe or the Americas.
You can organise your holiday on Cocos and Christmas yourself, but it might work out cheaper when organising it through specialised travel agents. We found a great first port of call were Karen & Dieter from Cocos Dive who will help you in any way humanly possible and who are also managing some of the islands holiday accommodation.
For more information on Cocos (Keeling) Islands check out the following websites:
www.cocos-tourism.cc - the official website of the Cocos Islands Tourism Association
www.cocosdive.com - Cocos Dive website
www.nationaljet.com - National Jet Systems website
www.cocosseaview.com - Cocos Seaview with semi-selfcontained rooms