Indian ocean

Cocos Keeling: the amazing story of an atoll…

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During the night we had slowed our pace and were sitting around a dozen miles from the South Cocos Keeling passage, when the daylight suddenly illuminated the ocean. North Cocos Keeling, which is uninhabited is not accessible to boats. The island has no lagoon or channel, just a coral reef which rings the island and against which the sea breaks violently. There are no sheltered anchorages, and since it became a designated Australian National Park in 1995, landing on the island has been forbidden. However, South Cocos is a different story: a huge lagoon, 27 islands and islets, 2 wide passages and excellent anchorage which is well-sheltered from the tradewinds by Direction Island, which is now deserted. The only downside is that the water soon becomes very shallow, and means that sailing around the lagoon for larger boats is not possible. There is a launch which connects Home Island to the east and West Island. Only small draught vessels can head out towards the center of the lagoon.

Port-Refuge anchorage, Direction Island…

Passing boats congregate in the Direction Island anchorage. Despite this it is one of the loveliest that we have encountered on our round the world trip. 2 or 3 miles to the south is Home Island, where the administrative authorities are based, and where there is a post office, an internet service, and a grocery store with the most expensive prices that we ever saw ($10 Australian for a kilo (2lbs) of potatoes). You need to use your dinghy to get ashore. Beware of the coral which is all over the place. At first light I looked across the somber horizon for the line of coconut palms on South Cocos. I first made out Home Island, two points to port, and then Direction Island. Even in these days of electronic navigation, GPS and the Maxsea software, I still find the sight of an island emerging from the sea to be quite magical, like a recurring dream, and these are moments which I cherish. Situated 12° south of the equator, the Cocos Keelings are affected by the Indian Ocean monsoons. There is a north-west monsoon from January to May and south-east Trade Winds for the rest of the year. Since 1984 the islands have been an external Australian Territory, despite being almost 2800 kms (1,500nm) from the city of Perth on the Australian west coast, from where there is a weekly flight. There is another air route, mainly used by the population of Asian (mainly Malaysian) origin, and Europeans, which links the small atoll to Singapore. I have in front of me a map of the sea bed in this part of the Indian Ocean. You'd think that we were flying over the Alps! The two Cocos Keeling atolls formed at the summits of two former volcanoes, now submerged and which rise on average 5000 meters (16,400 feet) above the ocean floor. These two huge underwater mountains are linked under the water by a narrow base, at a depth of 7 to 800 meters (2,300 to 2,600 feet). The North Cocos Atoll, which is surrounded by an uninterrupted coral reef, is made ...

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