Crew Blog | Craig Thomas: Exploring Cocos Island

Craig ThomasWritten by Craig Thomas

For almost a week, Hōkūleʻa and her crew have been safely separated from the lumpy seas of the Indian Ocean, enjoying Direction Island, a calm corner of Cocos Lagoon that functions as a park and marine reserve.  Surrounded by cruising sailboats hailing from Germany, Holland, U.S., and U.K. to name a few, we are all preparing for the 2,300 nautical mile crossing to the islands off the coast of Africa – seems like everyone is heading to Mauritius!


This beautiful lagoon, due to its location between Australia, Malaysia and Africa, experienced a turbulent past century —  an undersea cable network dragged this tiny atoll into two world wars, and a copra (coconut meat) plantation added to the unrest. Now, both telegraph cable communications and plantations have passed into history, leaving behind the management and use of the islands to local wisdom.

The shire council made Direction Island a nature park occupied mostly by large red hermit crabs, and brown land crabs.  Despite being mostly coral the island is lush with huge naupaka and dense with coconut palms. Typical of barrier islands, the lagoon side is calm and sandy, but you can hear the surf crashing on the reef about 100 yards away; that side of the island is wild with jagged coral, aʻama (crabs) and slippers washed up from around the world.


At the island’s eastern tip, a channel in the barrier reef funnels the water washing in from the southern swell into the lagoon. Appropriately named “The Rip,” this area is a marine reserve. Climbing in off the barrier reef, Kimo, Kalei and I snorkeled to the edge of the whitewater escorted by a black tip reef shark and a school of blue green uhu. We turned into the current stream and shot around the Island, flying over giant clams exhibiting iridescent blues, greens and browns, surrounded by large unicorn tangs. In a cave guarded by its smaller siblings we saw a grouper that was about 5 feet long, more black tips, and the largest kaku (barracuda) I’ve ever seen. All too soon the magic current slowed, so we got out and did it again, this time traversing a fish nursery.

The local school utilizes the park and marine reserve as part of its curriculum. Students created uhu replicas out of battered slippers collected from the reef. In addition to biology and ecology, the school curriculum includes lessons on ancient voyaging and traditional navigation.  Direction Island also serves as an educational camp for students from Perth, Western Australia. Every year middle school students fly 1,000 miles to experience life in a lagoon.


This is not the only island of the Cocos (Keeling) group to be focused on natural resource management and education.  There are 26 other coral islands in the group, principal among them Home Island, with about 500 inhabitants of Malaysian descent; West Island, the commercial center of the group; and North Keeling Island, a national park of Parks Australia.

Established in 1995, Pulu Keeling National Park is composed of North Keeling Island and the surrounding 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles) of water.  The island is home to the only surviving population of the Cocos buff-banded rail, an endemic and endangered species of bird, known in Cocos Malay as “ayum hutam” or “Chicken of the Forest”.  The Park is also home to the endemic Cocos angelfish, as well as large breeding colonies of seabirds and marine turtles.

Cocos Islanders preserve the magic elements of their world and set an example for us all through local resource management and education.

Please help keep us sailing for future generations. All contributions make a difference for our voyage. Mahalo nui loa!

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