Christmas Island vs the Great Barrier Reef

ABOVE A group of divers preparing to jump into the sea at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia
ABOVE A group of divers preparing to jump into the sea at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The rarely seen coral reefs that surround Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean are just as splendid as those of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia – only they’re far more isolated and far less spoiled


LOCATION Christmas Island is in the Indian Ocean, 225 miles (360 km) south of Java

SCUBA DIVING Christmas Island boasts steep walls, shallow reefs, and safe cave dives

DAYTIME TEMPERATURES Jan: 77°F (25°C); Apr: 79°F (26°C); Jul: 75°F (24°C); Oct: 77°F (25°C)

Your first descent into the crystal-clear blue water surrounding Christmas Island will be nothing short of breathtaking. Beneath the surface lies the most luxurious of hard coral reefs – a colorful, lush display that is almost ostentatious in its beauty. The view goes on forever, way down to the depths of the Indian Ocean. Brilliant rays of sunlight cast stripes of turquoise through the sea and highlight the flapping motion of a distant wing.

Pause mid- water and wait for the manta ray as it approaches effortlessly, rotates slightly to ponder on the ungainly nature of the intruder suspended before it, and then slides on by. A pod of spinner dolphins follows in its wake, mother and babies playfully enclosing you, running rings around you and hoping for a new playmate. And in all this time there is no one else in sight other than your diving buddy and a divemaster. It’s a far cry from the more famous, but eternally crowded, Great Barrier Reef.

Christmas Island is actually best known not for its scuba diving, but for its extraordinary red-crab migration – a spectacle that takes place every year when millions of the scarlet creatures emerge from the rain forest and walk en masse down to the sea to spawn. At this time, the shallow water turns pink with eggs, but beyond that the sea remains aquamarine, completely pristine, and utterly deserted except for its wealth of marine residents.

The island has more indigenous species than anywhere else on the planet except the Galapagos Islands, and some of the marine creatures are unique too, including the exotic-looking dragon moray eel, which frequently pokes its nose up from deep inside hard coral formations to view divers as they pass by its lair.

Rising up from the depths of the Indian Ocean, this rain forest-clad island is actually the tip of an ancient volcano. Its tortuous limestone base has been shaped over millions of years by the waves that lap the island and by rainwater that sinks into the porous rock, creating a honeycomb effect beneath the surface. This rugged, potholed landscape continues into the ocean, where countless underwater caves coax you back into your diving gear and beneath the surface.

You enter the splendid Thundercliff Cave, on the shore side of the immaculate fringing coral reef, at a depth of 53 ft (16 m) and through a series of pitch- black grottoes that are decorated with stalactites and stalagmites. A little farther on, you ascend to an extraordinary subterranean beach where you can take off your dive gear and continue exploring on foot. It won’t be long before you see that you’re inside an enormous cavern that is as beautiful and grand as any Gothic cathedral.


THE BUILD-UP Often touted as the top must-see- before-you-die attraction, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the most famous coral reef on the planet, due mostly to its overwhelming size. Swim with minke whales, dive with sharks, and snorkel with rainbow- hued fish along 3,000 individual reefs that traverse the coast for 1,430 miles (2,300 km).

THE LETDOWN Thousands of people arrive at the Great Barrier Reef every year hoping to find a pristine underwater world teeming with fascinating marine life. Instead, they find a coral reef that has been damaged by crowds of unthinking visitors, many of whom trample on it at low tide and grab hold of fragile pieces while snorkeling and diving.

GOING ANYWAY? For the best diving, take a liveaboard boat to distant reefs well away from the day-trip regions. Never forget that the reef is a living entity. Help ensure its longevity by using ecologically minded operators.


Getting There and Around

Weekly flights arrive at the island’s small international airport from either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, depending on the season. There are also twice-weekly flights from Perth in Australia. There is no public transportation on the island, so it’s vital that you rent a car, preferably a 4WD, to negotiate the roads through the rain forest.

Where to Eat

The handful of restaurants on Christmas Island, including Australian bistros and Malay and Chinese restaurants, reflect its multicultural population. Indulge in Cantonese cuisine
with a twist at Yoong Chong in Poon San (tel. +61 9164 8133).

Where to Stay

Try the Captain’s Last Resort (tel. +61 9381 54576), a cozy cottage with fantastic views of the sea.

When to Go

Christmas Island sits just below the equator, so its climate is tropical. Try to avoid February and March, which are the wettest months.

Budget per Day for Two

US$400 for a day’s diving, food, lodging, and transportation.

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