Red Crabs and the Christmas Islands

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Travel Features >> Red Crabs and the Christmas Islands

Red Crabs and the Christmas Islands

March 14, 2012

Bring your swimming gear and your camera, there's plenty to photograph here on Christmas Island - we were told. I looked forward to the excursion - the bracing surf sprinkling onto our faces, sea gulls circling overhead, walks through gorgeous rainforests that emitted amazing animal sounds. But nothing really prepared me for the sight that awaited us on Christmas Islands, little over 350 kms from south Java in the Indian Ocean.

We reached this tiny but fascinating island on a weekly flight from Jakarta. The air was heavy with moisture, a mood of expectation hung over the island's residential or Settlement area. Keep the door and windows tightly shut ma'am, said the hotel's friendly desk attendant. After tucking in a delicious seafood meal, we slipped into bed, dreaming of the next few days of blissful adventure on the beaches and the forests.

A soft rustle-rustle woke me up early - it wasn't full light yet, I peeped out of the window. And simply couldn't believe what I saw. The entire front lawn had transformed into a red crawling carpet. Unbelievable! I watched spellbound - and then it registered. These were thousands and thousands of red crabs, crawling along on their journey to the sea, changing the land into a mobile red surface.

"They're on the bed!" shouted my husband. And sure they were, a sea of crustaceans rustling across hotel rooms, over beds, under pillows, through bath tubs, kitchen counters, lamps, lawn mowers, under car seats, into bags, …… in fact, almost anywhere you turned. And there lies a wonderful story, of how this species of over a 100 million crabs struggles across the island, crossing innumerable hurdles to reach the seashore. In a great exercise of propagation - to breed and perpetuate its species. It 's also about how the inhabitants of this 135 square km. island have absorbed the annual ritual into their lives - waiting for it, knowing it throws normal life out of gear, but keeping out of the way and helping the crustaceans along on their journey to the sea.

This unique phenomenon takes place only on the Christmas Islands, which also has a wealth of exotic bird species, many breeding solely on this island. The red crabs are just one of a total of 14 land crab species that have their natural habitat in the dense forested central plateau of the island. One of the most prominent amongst them is the Giant Robber Crab. Adults weigh up to 3 kgs, and can split open and eat out of coconuts. But the annual phenomenon of the migrating red crabs is quite unparalleled. A sight you certainly cannot miss.

This island of some 2,000 people was settled just over a century back, and is an administered territory of Australia. Most residents concentrate on the northeastern edge, known as the Settlement. Rich in phosphate reserves, the island got workers from Java, Malaysia and China to feed its growing mining trade. Now, mining activity is limited while tourism has grown. When we arrived in late October, the rainy season had begun. A major draw for surfing, the beeches attracted tourists keen on enjoying the moist, tropical breeze and a rare chance to glimpse the whale sharks off the coast.

In the last quarter of the lunar cycle during this period, begins the fateful march of the red crabs. Venturing out of their forest burrows, they cut across streets, over railway tracks and through golf courses on a journey that lasts about two weeks. During the crustacean march, streets and areas that fall on the migration path are cleared of traffic. We found sign boards proclaiming Crab Crossing, and tunnels going under roads for the crabs to walk through. The best view was on Lily Beach Road, with scores of such special crossings and walls along the road to allow crabs to march over. Even so, some crabs do move off the path. An estimated million lose their lives on the mining rail tracks, get crushed under cars and even leave flat tyres in their wake.

For the next few days we were treated to this unusual sight all over the island. As we walked along the Flying Fish cove with its rows of shops and eating places, we saw residents stepping aside, crabs carefully lifted out of dustbins and put back on course, and children giving some a bath to moisten their gills. The crabs travel mostly in the early morning and towards late afternoon, keeping out of the blistering hot sun.

Led by the larger male crabs, the marchers finally reached the sea in a week's time. Hey, this was a different kind of Baywatch! The shore was magically transformed into a red line, where the crabs lapped up water to restore their body salts and moisture. Higher up, males dug out tiny burrows for their mates, zealously guarding them against adversaries. Once the mating ground was ready, females entered the burrows. After mating was over, they were left behind by the males, who began their journey back to the forests.

Staying back for about twelve days, the females finally emerge with their brood pouches full of eggs, and seek out shaded alcoves to release the eggs. Then, at dawn close to the last quarter of the moon, with thousands piling over one another, they sing out in a soft chirping chorus while releasing the eggs. Many of the females die while climbing over steep cliffs, many are killed in the journey over hot rail tracks, some crushed under cars or between doors. But many more larvae hatch out of the eggs that are released over five or six days. The females begin their journey back while the larvae stay in the sea for almost a month, transforming gradually into tiny crabs.

The government of Christmas Islands values its natural wealth. Nearly two-thirds of the island has been denoted a Nature Reserve that stretches across rain forests into the terraced cliffs rising from the sea. The red crabs are also a blessing for the forests, acting as its recycling machine. They crunch away at dry leaves on the forest floor, leaving their droppings as nutrients and giving the forest a clean swept look. To preserve this unique habitation, the government insists on stringent measures. You cannot bring guns for hunting here, nor are you allowed to carry in any animal or living plant species from outside. Though a new satellite launching facility is envisaged for the island, its impact on wildlife in the area has found many detractors.

Soon we understood more about crabs than just that they make a very yummy meal. At the end of our trip, it was time to get one last glimpse of the red crustaceans and bid goodbye. The young ones were still to come out. But we knew these tiny crawlies would soon be swarming over the island. Blundering into people's homes, getting picked up by birds or the robber crabs. But eventually, after a roughly nine-day trudge, most would make their way back into the protective cover of the rainforests - to start a new cycle of life. And we wished them all good luck.

Travel File:

Location: Christmas Island lies south of Indonesia but is actually Australian territory.

Getting there: There are flights that operate from Perth to Keeling, Cocos Island as also from Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

Staying there: There is a wide choice of hotels on Christmas Island to choose from: luxury, boutique hotels, resorts and budget hotels.

Migration season: The Red Crab migration season starts in October/November which is the beginning of the rainy season. The migration starts from the forests in the hinterland and the crustaceans march all the way to the sea for spawning. The crab movements take place mostly early mornings or late afternoon, so that they escape the mid day sun.

- This article has been contributed by Tanushree Sengupta

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