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After a two and a half week research leg, the Odyssey anchors in a sheltered lagoon off Direction Island, Cocos (Keeling).
Photo: Chris Johnson

May 23, 2002
Cocos (Keeling) Arrival
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Indian Ocean.

After an extremely successful, yet somewhat storm-tossed two and a half week research leg, we have arrived at our next port. Early this morning, we could see from the crow's nest (88 feet above the deck) the green hue of palm trees in the distance. We had reached the Cocos (Keeling) Islands!

The crew has been eagerly anticipating this short stopover. It will allow us a chance to explore these unusual atolls while reprovisioning the Odyssey. The southern end of the largest atoll, West Island, came clearly into view at about 10AM, but it took another three hours of sailing north before we reached Direction Island and the safe and sheltered anchorage inside its lagoon. Just before the Odyssey slipped into that shallow, flooded caldera we saw the deep ultramarine blue of the ocean turn abruptly to clearest aquamarine. It was the 5 kilometre deep sides of an extinct volcano below rushing towards the surface to meet us.

The Cocos (Keeling) islands lie 1,620 miles (2,700 km) from the northwest coast of Western Australia. They are relatively small, isolated, mid-oceanic atolls. In all, twenty-seven islets fringe the lagoons of these two atolls. (Aussies like me think of the outback as the most isolated part of our country, but these atolls are far more remote!) The total area of all 27 islets is only 14 square kilometres, and the highest ground is only 9 feet above sea level. The coral reef that surrounds the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is almost four times larger-- 52 square kilometers. It is a pristine, fringing reef (though it seems like a rather feeble defense against the power of the Indian Ocean). It would not be a good place to be if a cyclone, or tidal wave ever hit (there was a cyclone here just last week). However, as we were to find out later in the day, the threat of cyclones does not perturb the local people; they have put the islands' cyclone shelter and the local pub in the same building!

Sharks patrol the sandy bottom of the clear aquamarine water surrounding the Odyssey.
Photo: Courtesy of Parks Australia Cocos (Keeling) Islands

When he sailed alone around the world, Joshua Slocum visited these islands. It was in 1897, and he later wrote in his famous book, 'Sailing alone around the world', "If there is a paradise on this earth, it is Keeling." He described the boat building skills of the local people as the best workmanship he had ever seen.

Slocum spent a total of 5 weeks here, and before departing tossed 3 tons of cement ballast overboard in order to make room for 30 shells of the famous, giant, Tridacna clams of Keeling. Admiral Fitzroy of the Beagle, who passed through the island group in 1836, referred to these giant clams as 'man-traps' because of the prevailing sailor's belief that stepping in an open clam shell would cause it to clamp down on the victim's foot and hold them under water until they drowned. However, the Tridacna clams, the largest of the giant clams, cannot fully close their shells-their mantles are too bulky-so except for circumstances of exceptionally bad luck (a foot just the right size and a clam of just the right leanness), these clams pose no real danger.

One of the people who shared the voyage of the Beagle with Fitzroy was, of course, Charles Darwin and Cocos Keeling was among the islands that inspired his theory on the formation of coral atolls-a theory that has largely stood the test of time.

While visiting these islands over 150 years ago, Darwin was also impressed by what greeted him.

    "On entering the lagoon, the scene is very curious and rather pretty, its beauty is, however, solely derived from the brilliancy of the surrounding colors.''
    -Charles Darwin, 1836.

We too found the colors truly astounding and the water equally extraordinary. It is as though we are anchored inside a giant clear swimming pool, the brilliant colors underwater are visible down to depths of over 30 feet. Venturing below the surface is akin to taking a swim in an enormous, densely populated aquarium.

Odyssey crew visit with the students of Cocos (Keeling) District High School.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The floor of the lagoon is in most places a sandy plain patrolled by sharks, from which mounds of coral and rock rise. Called 'bommies', here in Australia, their sides are studded with giant purple and blue-lipped clams, and all about them we see little squalls and blizzards made up of the 528 local reef fish species that find safety among the coral rocks.

Along the gleaming sandy shoreline, the long curved trunks of thousands of coconut palms lean precariously over the water, casting gently swaying shadows across the shallows-shallows that abound with sleek one-meter-long Black-tipped Reef sharks.

Only two of the 27 islets are inhabited, while a third, North Keeling - the second, smallest atoll has been designated as a seabird rookery-and a seabird rookery of global importance.

Together, West Island and Home Island is inhabited by some 600 people, 450 of whom are Cocos Malay. Two early settlers, Alexander Hare and John Clunies Ross, brought these extraordinary people here in 1826 to help cultivate coconuts and process copra (dried coconut flesh), the mainstay of the Cocos economy throughout most of the islands' recent history. These isolated people maintain a strong cultural identity and have evolved a unique island lifestyle that reflects their diverse history and which incorporates many Islamic traditions as well. When given the choice, the Cocos Malay's voted to integrate with Australia.

450 Cocos Malay live on Home Island where their traditional Muslim culture merges with modern Australian society.
Photo: Chris Johnson

In 1978, the Australian Government bought the Islands from the Clunies-Ross family, and 150 Australians now live here, most of whom are on short-term contracts as teachers, medical staff, police officers etc.

The crew is looking forward to spending a couple of days in port while we provision. We also hope to explore some of the biological wealth of this remote, and rarely visited wildlife paradise.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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