Cocos Keeling

August 1998

Small island off CocosSince our last update we have been enjoying the beautiful islands and waters surrounding Cocos Keeling. The shallow coral filled lagoon is only overshadowed by the leafy green palm trees and white sand that lines the beaches. We’ve gone adventuring by dinghy and exploring by foot. We’ve caught up with yachts we know and mingled with the local population. In these parts there may not be a lot to do, but its not the big things that make an impression it’s all the little one’s put together. In this newsletter, I’ve tried a slightly different format. In addition to our experiences, I’ve included more about the island and it’s inhabitants. Please let us know what you think and whether you like it or not. Also tell us if there is anything you’d like to see or hear more of.

The Water
We’ve been snorkeling just about every day with our favorite spot being The Rip. The Rip is a narrow cut in the reef between Direction Island and Prison Island that allows current to flow into and out of the lagoon. The best way to snorkel it is to jump into the current at the entrance and just float along above the coral bottom. At any given time there is 4-6 knots of current shooting you through, but a few good strokes in either direction will take you out of the stream. Among some of the under-sea creatures we have seen are schools of green Parrot fish, Trevale, Yellow Snappers, Surgeon fish, Angels, Trigger fish, and a ton of Tridaecna clams. Our favorites (Suzie excluded) were the 4 white-tip Sharks that sit at the bottom of a deep part in The Rip. They seem to love the current that brings in all sorts of food for them. Lucky for us, these reef sharks are not aggressive and don’t find humans very appealing. Despite our efforts to convince her otherwise, Suzie was sure that they would find her quite a tasty morsel. We are happy to report that a Triaenodon Obesus did not sample Suzie Kondi!

Bill and I desperately wanted to do some diving around the islands while we were here. Aside from the weather which has been about 50/50, sunny/overcast, the wind has been blowing a steady 15-20 knots for days. That means that the surf Bill and the dinghy in Cocosoutside the island has been steadily piling up. We might have attempted it on our own, but with a small dinghy and no local knowledge, we decided against it. Alternately, we had lined up a possible day of diving with the only local dive operator, Dieter. That never happened because Dieter is also the head Quarantine officer for the islands. Must be a busy boy. Our special thanks to him for helping us with our e-mail.

The Islands
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands lay 2,000 miles due west of Darwin, Australia and more than 600 miles SW of Sumatra and Java.  They are considered to be among the most remote islands in the world. Not only had we never heard of these islands before setting sail, 99% of Australians have no idea they exist either. That is quite amazing, seeing as they are part of Australia. The history of the islands goes back many hundreds of years and is too long and detailed an account for this newsletter. Sufficed to say, the only thing that really intrigues me is the name.

Since we arrived I’ve been wondering about the significance of the name as it appears above. It seems that it’s been referred to as the Cocos Islands for centuries (I’m still not sure why), but the name Keeling in parentheses is used to distinguish it from the other Cocos Islands in the world. Although there is still some confusion over who actually discovered them, it is believed that William Keeling of the East India Company was the first to stumble upon them in 1609. I suppose it’s similar to the debate over Columbus discovering America. In the end it’s not who actually made the discovery, but whose name is remembered.

There are actually two atolls that make up Cocos, only one of which is inhabited. There’s North Keeling Island and South Island. South Island is the inhabited one and refers to a collection of smaller islands. CocosbeachtnThe three significant ones are Direction Island (where our anchorage is uninhabited), Home Island (where the Malaysian population lives) and West Island (where the white Australian population lives). It may seem strange that the two populations are separated, but it happened many years ago and still remains.

Because there are virtually no facilities on Direction Island, anyone on a yacht must either go to Home or West Island for groceries, mail, etc. Since West Island is too far by dinghy, first you have to get to Home Island and then catch a ferry across. The dinghy ride is the worst part of the trip, as you have to fight the SE winds and accompanying swell for about a mile. Basically, that means you get wet! Tough life we lead, but some one has to do it. Anyway, after the ferry and a brief bus ride, you’re in the busy metropolis of West Island. Don’t be fooled, it feels more like a ghost town. When I said facilities, I meant basic facilities!! Let me give you en example. The post office is only open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9:30-11:00 (maybe that’s because there’s only one flight a week).

The People
Well, to begin with there are only about 800 people in total on Cocos. The Malay people make up about 700 of that number, while the remainder are Aussies. The Malays were brought here about the middle of the last century as slave labor. They were mainly used for the processing of copra (dried coconut meat) as well as to serve the Clunies-Ross family. Their history is a sad and turbulent one, but they have persisted over the years and now live quite well on this island paradise. Cocos was transferred from Britain to Australia in the early 1950’s, but it was not until the early 1980’s that the Malay people voted to become fully integrated with Australia. A smart move on their part to be sure. However, because there is no real revenue making industry left on the island the entire population of Malays are on the “Dole”. In other words, they are fully financially supported by the Australian government.

I suppose that might be compensation for many years of hardship, especiallycocospalms since they were still using plastic money up until 25 years ago. In spite of it all they seem to be fairly happy people. With the exception of a few seemingly bitter ferry operators everyone whom we’ve met was extremely nice. Our special thanks to the owner of the Bunga Melati restaurant who cooked us some delicious Malaysian dishes and always had a smile on his face. We think it was because we always arrived soaked to the bone from the ride over. The last night we were there he offered Suzie a sarong (a cloth wrap similar to a skirt) to wear in place of her wet shorts. As we were leaving, he insisted that she keep it. There was no point in arguing, he wouldn’t take it back.

As for the Aussies on West Island, they’re just a regular bunch from all over Australia. Most are government workers employed in island administration, quarantine services, meteorological observation, health services and education. Suzie’s sister, Anna, says that Cocos is a very desirable posting for teachers in Western Australia. If you don’t mind a very quiet lifestyle, I can see why. Considering there are not that many people, it is a very tight-knit community. I get the feeling that if you sneeze, everyone knows about it. As far as I know the only remaining legacy of one of the original families to settle here is John Clunies-Ross. I have no idea what he does, but he still calls it home. Unfortunately, we did not have much of an opportunity to mix with the West Island residents. The only social meeting place (the local pub) did not open until 5:00 and there was no regular evening ferry service. Such is life on a small island.

And Finally…….
Suzie Q
The last few days on OOB have been quite eventful, to say the least. After having spent some quality time resting up from our last passage, we had planned to depart Wednesday the 12th. All appeared to be set until Mark arrived back from an evening on the island and announced that he was staying on Cocos. We all thought he was kidding. Well, he was serious after all. After much thought and consideration, he decided that being sea sick for the next three weeks of passage sailing was not his idea of fun. Having met and befriended some of the local Aussies, he opted to remain here instead of sailing with us. We were all disappointed, but understood his reasoning. On the bright side, he has dedicated himself to a charitable purpose here on the island. He has volunteered to setup a web site for the island and help the local school get on the Internet. Good on ya Mark, and good luck!

After we were over the shock of losing a crew member (we’ve crewed with three before) we decided that Thursday morning was the time to set off. We cleared out Wednesday afternoon and were ready to go. Come Thursday AM, Bill woke up with an ear infection affecting both ears and decided it would make sense to see a doctor before leaving. With a box of antibiotics and some ear drops in hand, Bill returned with a frown on his face. He wasn’t frowning because of his ears, but because the doctor wanted him to stay for a follow up visit on Friday. OK, now we’re leaving Saturday. Once Bill has his mind set on a departure date, it’s difficult for him to change, and we’ve been changing quite a bit lately. The advantage to pushing back the departure is that it means we are absolutely ready to go. The only things left are to put the awning away and pack up the dinghy.

It is now Saturday morning and we are in fact ready to go. The weather is still cocosislandsmgood, with a strong high pressure system over us and holding. The sun is shinning with scattered clouds and a 15 knot breeze here in the anchorage. We are expecting 20-30 knots of wind from the southeast with moderately rough seas. That basically means we’re in good shape and should move along quite well. At this point we are looking at about a 9 day passage from here to Chagos, covering 1580 miles. We will make a brief stop there before pushing on to the Seychelles. That passage is another 930 miles, over approximately 6 days time. So, with any luck we should be in the Seychelles near the end of the first week in September.

cocosflying cocosflying2

Up in the air junior birdmen...  Guido, the crazy Italian from the yacht next to us, converts his dinghy into an ultralight seaplane. Most amazing!

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