A Visit to Cocos Keeling – August 2010

Published 11 years ago, updated 5 years ago

This report is from Kirk Little on S/V Salsa (www.SailingSalsa.com) from a visit in August 2010.

Cocos Keeling was first spotted from the east by a slight glow on the horizon around 40 miles out on a moonless night (one other boat reported this as well). Most guides mention a light that MIGHT be on and visible from something like 12 miles, and the land itself is not visible to the eye until maybe 8 miles or closer, and I would not count on seeing the “glow” from the islands unless the conditions are just right, nor did I see any specific lights, just a dim glow.

The approach and entrance in daylight and 25kt following winds was super easy. I just used the way-points already posted on Noonsite.com, and in some of the guides, they were spot on, and by using eyeball navigation I was able to even cut most of the corners and still stay in over 10ft of water. Several boats even entered the atoll after dark, however, all of them anchored outside the small Direction Island lagoon and waited till morning to enter the lagoon which is the primary anchorage. I would consider this partial approach by dark to be safe if you have good charts, and maybe a radar wouldn’t hurt to confirm your position and the markers, but it is basically wide open (still I chose to heave to until morning being unfamiliar at the time). You could probably even use a flashlight or moonlight to spot a nice sandy spot to drop your anchor to avoid the coral, even in ten meters or so, the water is just that clear.

Once inside the Direction Island lagoon you have great protection from the swell, but sometimes you get a little chop/wave action if the wind has anything west of S or N and you pick up a mile or more of fetch, but nothing to worry about as it is rare and tolerable, it’s a perfect anchorage in Southeasterlies (or anything east of S to N for that matter).

Being an Australian territory you are supposed to have a Visa (easy and cheap online) and email advanced notice of arrival. The IMPORTANT thing to know is that you DO NOT have to go through all of the quarantine requirements and fees as on mainland Australia. Things are very relaxed here (and reportedly on CI as well). One police officer (acting as customs, immigration, and quarantine all in one) came out to the DI anchorage on a jet ski to clear in three boats that had arrived the same day as me. Check in was quick easy and free (but some boats were required to go to Home Island when the police seemed to not be in the mood to come out to DI). They only asked me to get over to Home Island (2 miles by dinghy) to pay a port fee ($50 a week I think) and that’s the only fee you have to pay at all while staying in Cocos.

Now, for what makes Cocos keeling so great, in my opinion, it is simply DI (Direction Island) and the things to on and around it. On the island, there are BBQ facilities and we even found a make-shift smoker (this will be key after you catch your fill of fish!). There are also picnic tables, chairs, shelters from the rain, toilets, a rain-water collection system, and a solar-powered telephone and VHF. (no showers, electricity, wifi, or officially potable water) even though some people drank the rainwater with no issues, and I did as well after treating it with 1 drop bleach per liter. The island has several little beaches with the best one being right in front of the Anchorage area where nearly all the facilities are located. There is also a jetty for the inter-island ferry however everyone just lands their dinghy’s on the beach as it is more convenient.

Coconuts are abundant but don’t expect to find any other food on DI except for fish. The fishing is great. We ate everything from small parrot fish to black tip shark but mostly sweet-lips, groupers and snapper caught spearfishing. Trolling, throwing lures, live bait, everything had some degree of success, however, the best locations are about a mile dinghy ride from the anchorage. There are also several great snorkeling/diving locations nearby the island but I won’t go into details. The spearfishing here is said to be safe but is the most shark-infested water I’ve ever swum in with exception maybe to the Galapagos (where you can’t spearfish anyway). I think it is 100% safe for swimming and diving, but spearfishing changes everything. 90% of the sharks are black-tip reef sharks under 2 meters that don’t bother you until you actually have a fish on your spear and even then if you can hold the fish out of the water until you get back to the dinghy you are ok. Shoot something big, too big to hold out of the water, you are going to have some competition for that fish quite often. At one point we shot a large snapper in about 4 meters of water that got his bleeding self-lodged in a hole, and before long we had around 20 sharks circling us, it got VERY dodgy when the Bronze Whalers showed up over 2 meters long, some people said we should have gotten out of the water but with three of us, we were just barely able to save the fish from the VERY aggressive and frenzied sharks. We were told there are tiger sharks to watch out for on occasion as well. But on the other hand if you were just snorkeling, without fishing they completely leave you alone and the authorities told me they couldn’t remember the last attack, as they are so rare. But in summary DI is a great place to hang out, snorkel, dive, BBQ, socialize with other yachties and occasionally tourists from the nearby West Island.

What I did not like so much about Cocos was what you had to do if you wanted to buy food or potable water. Basically, you have to take a 2-mile long dinghy ride, deal with worse selection than a 7-11 connivance store, and pay two or three times what everything cost on the mainland. That being said you could get the basics you need, best deals I found were potatoes and onions at around $7 USD a Kilo!, Fruit and Vegetables were around $20 USD a Kilo, canned vegetables around $2-3 a can for the cheapest ones, double that for stuff like canned spaghetti and even more for tuna or meat, everything was as expensive as I’ve ever seen it anywhere in the world. My solution was to try and live off of coconuts and fish as best I could, and deal with my dwindling provisions from Bali to get me to Madagascar, that worked out OK. If you take a ferry from Home Island over to West Island there is a little more food selection, frozen meats, plus alcohol is available. Best value was cheap boxed wine, 4 liters for $20, WOW! I Didn’t buy any beer ($50 per case) or Cigarettes ($4 a pack) but I think those prices are in the ball-park. I was told that both CI and Cocos are Duty-Free islands explaining the relatively cheap booze and cigarettes. If you are sailing from Australia and not poor the prices are not too shocking but if you are coming from Indonesia your talking 5 to 10 times what you are used to paying. There was also one or two small restaurants with meals that I think ran around $10 but more like $15 after a drink (too much for me) and internet was $12 per hour and just “fast enough”.

So if I ever make it back to Cocos Keeling, and yes I would stop there again if crossing the Indian Ocean, you will find me arriving well provisioned and staying clear of the uneventful populated islands (there was a nice little museum on Home island and the Muslim Malay population there seemed more welcoming and laid back than the Australians on West Island to my surprise). Boats with fast dinghies and big budgets may find some interesting socializing and drinking opportunities on West Island in the evening but the return trip isn’t possible by ferry. In any case you would find me fishing by day and spending afternoons around a fire on the beach sitting on DI drinking my cheap boxed wine and smoking grouper on Coconut husks, enjoying the company of other cruisers and travelers, certainly worth a week or two of your Indian Ocean crossing in my opinion, however, some cruises have stayed for much longer.

After departing for Madagascar in mid-August I found the southerly swell to be quite large but in long periods, and the trades blew 20-30+kts nearly the entire way.

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