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 **

Ship runs aground in the Galapagos

On Wednesday of this week, a tourist ship named the M/S Alta ran aground, and became stuck on a reef in the Galapagos islands while entering the harbor at Puerto Ayora, along the southern coast of Santa Cruz island. The extent of the ecological damage to the reef has yet to be determined, but fortunately no one aboard was injured in the accident, which was caused, at least in part, due to a malfunctioning lighthouse that normally marks the entrance to the harbor.

The 140-foot long sailing ship is operated by Quasar Expeditions and was carrying 16 Canadian passengers, 8 Ecuadorian crew members, and an Ecuadorian National Park Guide at the time of the incident. All of the passengers were evacuated from the boat, and spent the night in a nearby, ocean front hotel, before continuing on to Darwin Station and the Santa Cruz Highlands the following day. They did cut their tour a day short however, leaving the islands yesterday, rather than today as scheduled.

As of Friday, efforts were underway to remove the Alta from the reef, but the process is a slow one, and caution must be exercised in order to contain any fuel that may have spilled. Initial reports indicated that as much as 3500 gallons had leaked into the harbor, but later reports refuted that number, saying that no leaks had been found. All the fuel will be pumped out of the ship before it is pulled off the reef and into dock for a complete inspection before it returns to service.

One of the hottest topics in sustainable travel over the past few years has been the impact of tourism on the fragile environments of the Galapagos. Fortunately, it seems that this incident will not have any long lasting effects on the region, and it seems like the Alta will be back in service shortly.

Bowermaster’s Adventures — Political conflict in the Galapagos

Street protests are not a common occurrence in Galapagos, but a recent decision by the Ecuadorian government to fight over fishing and illegal fishing by giving fishermen tourist permits – over other residents, who’ve been waiting patiently themselves, many for years – sent locals into the streets armed with pots for banging, loudly. Virtually everyone who’s moved to the Galapagos in recent years has come with hopes of participating in – getting rich off? – the booming tourism industry. With permits greatly reduced, the line of hopefuls is long. That the government is trying to buy off fishermen by letting them jump to the front of the line isn’t sitting well.

Near the front of the protest is a solitary gringo, a sixty-something man in a red polo shirt and khaki shorts, carrying a placard and a megaphone. Jack Nelson’s father came to the Galapagos in 1961, by a thirty-six-foot sailboat; he opened its first hotel. When the son came a few years later, hoping to avoid the U.S. draft and maybe adapt to island life, he never anticipated staying. He went on to become the Galapagos first tourist guide and is still here, watching the place he loves evolve. The hotel has been sold but he still co-owns a dive shop, so is actively interested in who’s getting new tourist permits … and who is not.

Bowermaster’s Galapagos — Chapter VII from gadling on Vimeo.

“The human population in the Galapagos is doubling every five years. What is really significant about that number is not just the environmental impact or living standards, but it’s political in that the political majority has been here just five years. There are people who don’t know anything about the place, don’t really understand what the issues are but since they have become the majority the government responds to their demands.”

Does he still love the place? “In some ways. It’s certainly still very beautiful but it’s becoming less enjoyable to live here because of the political problems and conflicts and things like increased noise pollution and contamination.

“One thing that’s killing the place is the introduced species that arrive with all the increase in tourism and business. Here’s a great example. A young lady arrived at Baltra with a rose that her boyfriend gave her Quayaquil, a rose with some tissue and foil around the base to keep it damp. At the airport the national park rangers jump her, take it away and burn it with their cigarette lighters because it’s an ‘introduced species.’ Simultaneously at the dock a few miles away a ship is unloading thousands of tons of uninspected cargo – bales, boxes, crates and bags of stuff, much of it carrying invasive species of one kind or another.


“What do we need? Desperately, better public education about the local issues and economics, in a way people on the street can understand. Pretty presentations with university level vocabularies are meaningless. If people can’t understand where the money is coming from … or not… they don’t care about anything else.

“Education about simple things too, like the problem with the introduction of species. Everybody who comes to live here wants to bring a dog. And not just any dog, but a special breed. One wants a German Shepard, another a Great Dane, another a cocker spaniel. It shows that they don’t really understand the impact of that on this place. It’s not just dogs and cats; we have five new species of introduced gecko living here that are competing with and chasing out the endemic gecko. Which changes the balance for the birds, plants and soil and on and on, a cascade of changes.

“We definitely need stricter migration policies and realistic caps on the number of boats and number of beds and how many times they can turn over each week. Now, for example, a lot of the tourist boats are running what I call the nine-day week. They sell a five-day tour and a four-day tour, which means on a couple days each week they’re doubling up, turning over a lot more tourists than the caps should allow, which raises the pressures on everything. Another problem is that local population is promoting more and more mass market, lower quality tourists because they have no access to the first-class tourists. And mass-market tourism brings heavy environmental impacts for low profit and requires even more infrastructure.

“I think we may be coming to a point where a whole lot of the laws, regulations and policies have to be reformed. When you’re in the tourism business the last thing you want is trouble. Like street protests, for example. Even perceived trouble in a tourist town can cause cancellations and wreck business for a long time. So to avoid ‘trouble’ sometimes we just go along with bad things we see happening around us. But it’s too late to ignore now.”


Bowermaster’s Adventures — Sea Shepherd Conservation in the Galapagos

While Sea Shepherd‘s chief cheerleader and trouble-inspirer Paul Watson is holding forth from his ship, The Farley Mowat, continuing its chase of Japanese whale hunters off Antarctica and (recently) being arrested on a thirty-year-old warrant in Portugal (where he had gone to attend a meeting of the International Whaling Commission) … the Washington state-based environmental group’s second-most visible campaign is ongoing in the Galapagos.

From a very prominent, second-story office just across from the main fishing dock on Santa Cruz, Alex Cornellisen manages the Shepherd’s Galapagos operation. At the moment, it is a two-person band. His focus is on trying to keep a global audience alerted to issues of over fishing and illegal fishing. To that end the group has already donated a boat to the park rangers, to help them enforce the marine reserves rules and regulations. A veteran of Shepherd’s Antarctica campaigns, Cornellisen is happy to be in the slightly less-amped environment of Galapagos. That said, his predecessor was chased out of the country when the shark fin “mafia” put a hit out on him.

Bowermaster’s Galapagos — Chapter VI from gadling on Vimeo.

“In Ecuador you can get someone killed for $40,” says Cornellisen, standing on the balcony of his office, looking down at the main dock where small fishing boats are unloading legal catches. “So you have to take threats seriously here.” His primary concern about the Galapagos is that while there are plenty of rules against illegal fishing, enforcement is difficult.

“Last year we were responsible for several raids which resulted in the confiscation of about ninety thousand sea cucumbers, and about thirty thousand shark fins. But there is an enormous amount of illegal fishing that still continues. For example, the legal quota for sea cucumbers last year was about two million allowed to be taken out of the park. Only about 1.2 million were reported, yet there was an increase in illegally caught and confiscated sea cucumbers. What was not being reported just ended up being sold in the illegal markets.

“It’s not just a few Galapaganians doing the illegal fishing. There’s a big group from the north, from Costa Rica, that comes here to take shark fins. They catch them within the park’s marine reserve and then take them out of the supposedly protected waters where they are sold mostly to Asian countries, like Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

“All this shark finning has an impact on tourism, not just the fish population. If there are fewer sharks to observe, there will one day be fewer tourists coming to see them. Without sharks the whole ecosystem will crumble and then the question is will tourists continue to come to the Galapagos?


“Enforcement in the Galapagos is not as efficient as Sea Sheperd would like to see. Plus, there’s a lot of corruption in the local Navy. Sometimes the Navy will alert illegal fishermen that the park officials are in the area. I’ve been coming to the Galapagos ever since I first joined Sea Sheperd in 2002 and every time I come, for a month or so, we catch poachers. So it is possible. They are absolutely out there and we know how to find them and pass the information on to the park. But the Navy often warns off the poachers so that by the time the park rangers arrive … they are gone.

“Unfortunately we don’t have any jurisdiction to apprehend the poachers, so all we can do is notify the park and start pulling in the long lines, which is mostly what they use to fish for sharks.

“I think it would certainly help if the park rangers were armed. If you go to a supermarket in Quito you see a security guard with a gun protecting bags of potatoes. Here we have this beautiful pristine ecosystem called the Galapagos Islands, and the park rangers have absolutely no jurisdiction whatsoever, they are not even allowed to carry batons. I think that the park rangers should definitely be armed. I think if the word got out to the illegal fishermen that the park rangers were armed and capable of making arrests, I think it would be a lot harder for poachers to come in here and take sharks or any other species.”

The Abercrombie & Kent online sale starts now!

You looking to go to Botswana next year? Or, maybe Chile? Now’s the time to book your trip. Abercrombie & Kent, which sends its guests on the road in style, is starting its rare online-only sale now. The discounts start at 5 percent off the itineraries’ usual prices. Every half hour, another 5 percent is chopped off. Six hours from now, any trips that are left will be discounted 60 percent. Patience can be rewarded, but greed can leave you stuck at home.

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A&K’s deals are on trips to Eastern Europe, East Africa, Chile, Galapagos, Egypt, Peru, Botswana/Zambia, Jordan and Turkey.