We, like most divers, travelled to Christmas Island in the hope of seeing big stuff - whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, silky sharks, spinner dolphins and maybe even a marlin. Unfortunately, these larger marine animals eluded us when we visited this remote island. However, we didn’t leave the island disappointed as we instead saw a host of rare, unique and fabulous fishes that make this island paradise one of the most special dive destinations in Australia.
Christmas Island is a place we have always dreamed of visiting, having heard and read wonderful reports about its amazing dive sites and marine life. We talked about organising a trip to the island for many years, but never got around to booking anything. But with Covid restrictions limiting our overseas diving options, we finally decided to visit this remote Indian Ocean territory in May this year.
Getting to Christmas Island is quite a challenge from the east coast of Australia, requiring a flight to Perth, then overnighting before a flight to the island via Cocos (Keeling) Islands. That first view of the island from the plane window made all the travel worthwhile, a breathtaking scene of a jungle-clad island rising out of the blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
Even arriving late in the afternoon, we could see why the island is called the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, as on the drive from the airport to our hotel we saw countless land crabs on the side of the road, while above soared thousands of birds. Considering the roads, houses and other human development, the island appeared to be over-run with wildlife. We only hoped that the fabulous wildlife continued underwater.
IMAGE BELOW - MASKED MORAY
After checking into our hotel, we strolled across the road to Extra Divers to meet David Watchorn and Joanne (Jo) McGilvray, who were going to show us Christmas Island’s underwater delights over the next week. Our itinerary for the week was a double boat dive each morning, and then an afternoon free to explore the island and see its extraordinary wildlife, or shore dive. As part of our package with Extra Divers our group also got a RAV4 hire car between four, to explore the island and also do as many shore dives at Flying Fish Cove as we liked. And we certainly took full advantage of this.
The next morning, we had our first look at Flying Fish Cove when we boarded the dive boat at the jetty. With crystal clear water gently lapping the shore we knew we were going to have an incredible week of diving and exploring.
We were actually the first dive group of the year, with the dive shop closed annually over the summer due to rough sea conditions. David mentioned that even a few days before the seas had been rough, so we felt very blessed to have calm flat seas and no wind. For our first dive we headed south of Flying Fish Cove to Lost Lake Cave.
We jumped in to find the visibility 40m and a beautiful sloping wall covered in very healthy hard corals. Christmas Island is the peak of a sea mount, rising from very deep water, so most of its dive sites are walls. Our group did a slow drift dive following Jo, and quickly spotted grey reef sharks, trevally, schools of fusiliers and a host of pretty reef fish. A whitemouth moray hanging out of its lair kept our cameras busy until we spotted a fish we had never seen before.
Sitting on a coral outcrop watching us was a large yellow hawkfish. We knew from books that this was a rare ornate hawkfish and even though it is found throughout the Indo-Pacific region, we had never seen one before. Well, they certainly aren’t rare at Christmas Island, as we saw several at almost every dive site.
On this dive we also spotted a pair of beautiful little Cocos Angelfish. These lovely blue and yellow fish are endemic to Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands, so we were delighted to see a pair. These also ended up being very common, with us seeing dozens over the week.
IMAGE BELOW - COCOS ANGELFISH
We ended this dive in a cave that cut into the overhanging sea cliff. In the cave we spotted squirrelfish, soldierfish, bullseyes and small shrimps. With the island made of basalt and limestone, sea caves are common right around the island, and we got to explore quite a few during our stay.
Our next dive at West White Beach was similar, a drift along a pretty coral wall and finishing the dive in a cave. This site had quite a few anemonefish, but once more it was the wonderful Indian Ocean fishes that impressed. We particularly liked the Meyer’s butterflyfish, with their striking patterns and the schools of power-blue tangs.
After lunch we had our first shore dive at Flying Fish Cove. We had been told by many people that this is one of the best shore dives in the world. Quite a big claim, but after only one dive we were sold. Under the jetty we spotted two species of triggerfish we had never seen before - a wedgetail and a black-patch triggerfish, and from there the dive just got better and better.
This site has coral gardens in the shallows, plus patches of sand and coral rubble, before you reach a sloping coral wall that drops to 400m. These coral gardens were overflowing with fishes, a huge variety of wrasse, hawkfish, butterflyfish, surgeonfish, damsels, angelfish, grubfish, parrotfish, pufferfish, fusiliers, basslets, rockcods and gobies.
On the drop-off we spotted several more fish we had never seen before; a Tyler's toby, a Eibl’s angelfish, a guineafowl puffer and a spotted butterflyfish. But it was a shy and endemic Cocopeel angelfish that most impressed, and also lead us on a merry chase to get a photo.
We returned to Flying Fish Cove for a late afternoon dive and this time we were looking for morays. A number of unique, rare and unusual morays are seen at Christmas Island, including the spectacular dragon moray. David gave us a tip on the best place to see them, a patch of nobby hard coral at 20m, but he also warned that a dragon moray had not been seen for two years.
We headed straight for the patch of coral and instantly found a rare masked moray. This species is only found in southeast Asia, but is rarely seen at most dive destinations. We had never seen one in all our dive trips throughout southeast Asia, so were ecstatic to have this one posing for the camera. And it sure put on a performance, lunging out of its hole and snapping at us and the passing fish. We couldn’t work out if it was aggressive or hungry. After taking dozens of images of this rare moray we looked up and saw five more masked morays poking out of the coral. Not so rare at Christmas Island. These were just as agro as the first moray, popping in and out of their lairs snapping.
We also saw another species of moray nearby that we still haven’t identified. It looked similar to a giant moray but with a different colouration. Back under the jetty we spotted flounders, false stonefish, octopus and another fish we had never seen before, a white-spotted hawkfish. This is another widespread hawkfish species that had eluded us over the years, and with the sun starting to set we realised why. This hawkfish was nothing like its cousins as it was nocturnal!
Our first day at Christmas Island had revealed a wealth of fish species we had never seen before. We couldn’t wait to see what else we would discover.
IMAGE BELOW - WEDGETAIL TRIGGERFISH
The next morning, we had a challenging dive at Winifred Beach due to strong current, and a more relaxing dive at Perpendicular Wall. This is one of the premier dive sites at Christmas Island, and it was easy to see why. We started the dive in an overhang full of gorgonians, and then explored a wall decorated with exquisite soft corals, gorgonians, whip corals and sponges. The wall was home to a host of wonderful reef fishes, and quite a few masked morays, but you had to keep an eye on the blue as batfish, trevally and barracuda were parading by.
We were busying photographing the corals and fishes when Jo started to frantically tap her tank. She had spotted a scalloped hammerhead. Unfortunately, the shark took-off before anyone else saw it. On a repeat dive here an oceanic manta ray was also seen. At Perpendicular Wall we spotted several fish we had never seen before, with the highlight being a harlequin hind, a type of rockcod that is normally seen in deeper water.
For our afternoon dive at Flying Fish Cove, we explored the coral gardens on the other side of the cove, finding more wonderful reef fish and a very large giant moray. We also spotted a few smaller fish on this dive - dart gobies, blennies and a leaf scorpionfish. But once more we spotted fish that are rare or had previously eluded us, this time a four-saddle rockcod and a gilded triggerfish.
Only doing one dive allowed us to start our exploration of the island. We took a drive down to Ethel Beach, and on the way stopped in the forest to look for crabs. We didn’t have to look far, as thousands of red crabs were collecting leaves off the forest floor. We also spotted quite a few larger coconut crabs. Above us red-footed boobies perched on the branches and allowed us very close for photos. At Ethel Beach we found brown bobbies nesting, sitting on eggs and chicks, while above scores of frigate birds soared.
The following day we had lovely dives at Chicken Farm and Daniel Roux Cave, seeing whitetip reef sharks, more masked morays and schools of feeding velvet surgeonfish. We could hear a pod of dolphins during the first dive, their clicks and whistles very loud, but they didn’t come and visit us, as they often do. We also surfaced from the second dive to have David inform us that a whale shark had visited the boat while we were diving. Whale sharks visit Christmas Island after the annual red crab spawning to feed on their eggs. They generally disappear by May, but we were still hoping for an encounter.
That night we did a night dive in Flying Fish Cove. Emerging from the coral we spotted a good variety of crustaceans, including shrimps, hermit crabs, coral crabs and decorator crabs. Dozens of lionfish were out looking for a meal, including a rare twin-spot lionfish. We also spotted a giant moray, octopus, flounder, cardinalfish and many sleeping fishes. But the highlight was another rare fish, a tiger snake-moray. Snake-morays are extremely rare and lack the long dorsal fin of true morays. This was only the second time we had seen this species so we were once again ecstatic.
IMAGE BELOW - WHITE-SPOTTED HAWKFISH
Thundercliff Cave was an amazing dive the next day. This large sea cave is an impressive dive, not only because you can see some interesting fish and crustaceans, but because it has a large air pocket. Surfacing into the air pocket we could see a ceiling covered in stalactites, some of which continue underwater.
We also had an interesting dive at the Eidsvoid shipwreck, a cargo ship sunk during World War II. Very broken up, this wreck is now a haven for fishes, with schools of snapper, goatfish, squirrelfish and fusiliers seen. We also spotted a few groupers hiding in the dark recesses of the wreck.
With more of the island to explore, we grabbed one of the cars to visit The Blowholes. This is an incredible sight, dozens of water spouts venting vapour each time a wave hit the coast. The sound was amazing, with each one making a different roar, squeal or hiss. We also saw countless crabs and birds on this side trip.
Another night dive at Flying Fish Cove produced a different set of fishes. This time we spotted a snowflake moray and a rare yellowhead moray, another species we hadn’t seen before.
After a lovely dive at Submarine Rock, we visited a special spot where the local fishers clean their catch, which has subsequently attracted dozens of giant trevally. We snorkelled with these massive fish for twenty minutes as David threw in baits. The baits also attracted frigate birds that managed to steal a few snacks before they hit the water.
At The Morgue we saw another species we have never seen in Australian waters before, a ribbon eel. There were actually a couple of ribbon eels at this site, but they were all a little camera shy.
Our final night dive at Flying Fish Cove had us looking for another species we had never seen in Australian waters before, a crocodile snake eel. Searching the sand between the coral heads we spotted lionfish, flounders, flatheads and many crabs. After a thirty-minute search we eventually found this strange looking snake eel with a very evil-looking face.
All to soon our week on Christmas Island came to an end. We had a fabulous time on this remote island, amazed by its topside wildlife and its brilliant walls and caves. But having seen and photographed around forty fish species we had never seen before, we must say it is the fabulous fishes that we will most remember about Christmas Island.
IMAGE BELOW - YELLOWHEAD MORAY