The amazing red crab migration of Christmas Island

Experiencing the annual red crab migration on Christmas Island is an amazing sight. This remote landmass, named for the day it was discovered in 1643, is an Australian territory that’s considered “the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.” Sparsely populated, Christmas Island is ringed by the most hauntingly beautiful limestone cliffs, and shaped something like a tiered wedding cake. Each year, Christmas Island’s beaches are filled with an annual migration of millions of the local red crabs.

While there are fourteen species of land crabs living on the island, the sheer numbers of the animals during migration season (estimated to be as many 100-120 million crabs) is something visitors will never forget. In addition, each adult female crab gives birth to an estimated 100,000 babies!

From October through December, adult crabs make their way from the interior forests to the beaches to spawn. It is a slow-moving stampede. While the crabs are not aggressive, seeing a moving wave like a gigantic seafood smorgasbord is a little terrifying. Some of the animals are 50 or 60 years old, and they are very large (nearly 5 inches long). The males are larger, and the females have daintier claws. The colors of the crabs vary: some are orange and coral-red, with a rare purple animal now and then. They eat almost anything, including grass, fresh or rotting leaves, and even dung!

The annual crab migration has a significant effect on the activities of Christmas Island residents. Signs that announce “Crabs cross here” are posted across the island. Crabs on the golf course create special rules during the migration, and shouts of “holy crab!” are heard often. They surround houses, get into the laundry and enter schools. Residents have even developed special crab-related expressions in honor of this strange event. Saying that someone “has a face like a smashed crab” is not a compliment, and “He’s off like a bucket of red crabs in the hot sea” is something better understood after experiencing the event.

While some locals do eat the red crabs, (they are edible and delicious) crab dinners are frowned upon by local government. Each year up to two million of the red crabs fail to complete their marathon journey because of hungry residents, squashing by cars, dehydration (it’s a long walk from the forest) and even cannibalism (watching them eat each other is terrifying!). The smell of dead crabs creates a pungent and unappetizing.

Jimmy Buffett once penned a song about this peculiar island: “How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? How’d you like to spend the holiday away across the sea? How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? How’d you like to hang a stocking on a great big coconut tree?” Buffett neglected to mention one very important detail: this Christmas “paradise” is swarming with millions of red crustaceans. Talk about false advertising!

** Images courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons Project **