Scuba diver and underwater photographer Kat Spruth visited Christmas Island for the first time recently and was lucky enough to visit just as the baby crabs started their journey from the ocean back to their rainforest home. We asked her what the experience was like.
What inspired you to visit Christmas Island?
It was a combination of a who (David Attenborough) and a what (the crabs), as viewed through the lens of whichever nature BBC documentary he was narrating at the time. I ate up nature documentaries up as a kid – and I’m as passionate about animals today as I was back then. The footage of the millions of crabs making their way through everything in their path to spawn in the ocean, and then the seething masses of babies making their way back up, was as fascinating to me as any of the films of wildebeest on their journeys across the 'Serengeti'. He described it as one of the 'world’s greatest migrations' and from that point- it made The Kat list... Oh, I can't deny there was a certain amusement factor about heading over to Christmas Island for Christmas too.
What had you heard about the island before visiting?
Well- aside from the insights from David and reading around about the almost 'mini Galapagos’ nature of the island, in terms of endemic species of land crabs, birds and so on, moving in Australian dive circles, I'd heard Christmas Island was fantastic in terms of the underwater experience. Corals/seasonal whale sharks/ dolphins... well you can't go wrong, really can you?
What were your first impressions?
Wow this runway is short - ha ha! Jokes aside, one of my first thoughts was; what a large untouched wilderness to explore. Although a small portion of the island has been mined for phosphate, the view from the air is largely jungle abruptly ending on the coast where it meets turquoise waters - great for nature lovers!
So how was the diving?
Sometimes I have been known to use this word too much but the diving (and the snorkelling from the dive boat actually) was awesome! I had the pleasure of 12 dives with Hama and Lynnee of Wet N Dry adventures (conveniently located right next door to my accommodation).
Visibility seemed to go on for miles and we visited a different dive site every day - from walls dropping off sharply into the deep to some of the many limestone caves (full of baby crabs) carved into the side of the island. Coral, moray eels (I seemed to find one on every dive) reef sharks, anemone fish... so much life with every dive offering something new (except the moray eels haha!)
But, it would be wrong not to mention the daily activities in between diving - whereby we'd be dropped in to snorkel with dolphins, GTs and even a silky shark or two when luck smiled on us.
Most memorable diving experience?
The baby crabs. They were memorable above water - but certainly underwater too. A couple of the best dives involved diving into the underwater caves along the side of the island and finding the corals and sandy bottom within, alive with thousands of the babies - crawling over each other, over everything, even free swimming in the water.
I forget which dive site it was but one of the caves we entered and surfaced into an air pocket, even the walls above us were red with crabs climbing up the limestone out of the water, with occasional tiny droplet sounds as a few reached critical mass, lost footing and fell back into the water.
Of course, we did end up with a few stowaways on the boat once we got back up and took the gear off but After a mad scramble I think we managed to get them all back to where they were supposed to be.
What was it like to witness the migration for the first time?
The sheer number of babies returning was crazy. You see it on TV but it doesn't do it justice. You really have to see it with your own eyes to appreciate it.
Also, it helps with the appreciation if you accidentally become part of the migration yourself after standing on the beach taking macro shots and then on 're-surfacing' find a couple hundred babies migrating up your legs, thinking you're part of the island. So cute!
Did it inspire you in any way?
Every time I see something like this it just re-enforces for me how amazing the natural world is and how little we understand how and why these processes happen the way they do. How do they know when to spawn, how do the babies know how to get back?
Can you describe your migration experience - sights, sounds, feelings?
Well I understand I missed the main migration- adults to the ocean for the mate and spawn; but in my opinion I actually got the best half. Those baby crabs are just so photogenic. After arriving mid-afternoon-ish I was told there could be an opportunity to see some of the 'stragglers' spawning from about 4am and that's about the time the babies start moving. I actually wandered down to flying fish cove at around 3am (yeah I was eager). The first sign of the migration I came across was a BBQ with a tiny red carpet (on closer inspection – babies - skittering here, there and everywhere across its surface. Left and right with the head-torch and I rapidly became aware of red movement across in the grass, across the ground, up walls. Eventually I realised there were a group of people up ahead by the boat ramp, so wandering down further with a 'ministry of funny walks' like gait to try and allow the babies to move out of the way of my feet (like parting the Red Sea) I went to see what they were looking at, and… WOAH!
A moving red carpet of babies upon babies moving up the boat ramp from the ocean and cascading down the vertical side of the barrier, grass boiling with tiny red wriggling forms... and here and there, large adult females, often with the babies crawling over them, heading down to the ocean to release their own young. Yes! I did get to see them dance... and yeah it was fascinating...
It was difficult to decide where to look - I lingered long after the sun came up and the babies kept on moving. It's such an amazing thing, but it's also sad to think that so many of these little guys struggle so hard to live and just don't make it; the obstacles are just too great. Found myself keeping my fingers crossed for rainy days to keep them going - that sun for them is brutal.
What's your most memorable experience?
Anything associated with those baby crabs (or crablings as I like to call them) are all memorable. I spent so much time trying to capture some close-up shots with my new macro lens… but I have said a lot about crabs...
One of my other memorable experiences would be the dolphins. Post dive I was halfway through my cuppa when the snorkelling group got dropped back in to snorkel with dolphins- with a cuppa in one hand I was a bit short off the mark that time (we had plenty of opportunities) and elected to finish the tea. Crazy huh? But, a few minutes later I was able to grab my mask and fins, my trusty camera, and slide into the water a bit further out from the original snorkeling group. And they emerged from the blue - not the snorkelling group; a pod of probably around 20 dolphins with a couple of calves. It was me and them and it was the ocean and it was a beautiful few minutes with the sun playing across their backs before they headed to the deep.
What is your lasting memory of the island?
The aquatic-phase babies with their big blue Disney eyes!