North Keeling Island – the 27th Island in the Cocos Keeling Atoll formation.
Very few people have had the chance to set foot on North Keeling Island. It sits about 20 nautical miles north from the other Islands that make up the Cocos Keeling group.
But I have, I am lucky and I know it.
The Island was established as a National Park in 1995 and since then access is by permit only. It’s the only habitat for the endemic Buff Banded Rail (a tall quail-like flightless bird) and has the largest population of red-footed booby birds in the world. A healthy population of lesser frigate birds swarm the heavens too.
The sky is literately black with birds.
A few days before I was the leave the Cocos for the year, I was asked by my friend in ‘Parks if I waned to help count birds out there. It’s actually really rare to get the right conditions to head out to the Island as the swell is usually very large and the wind strong.
The other limiting factor is that we have to swim to shore. It’s one of the last Islands in the world that does not have rodents! How cool is that?
In world war 1, Australia’s first naval victory was fought around the Islands and there was even a time the Japanese went out there afterwards to claim and recycle the old metal from the war ships. Still no pests.
As an animal lover and zoo-keeper in my past life, I moved heaven and earth to get out there. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.
My brief: Pack a long shirt, long pants, food and leave your surfboard behind.
Gutted! North Keeling has absolutely epic surf but without a permit no-one is allowed to surf it – and anyway, I was there to work! A cracking left hand barrel breaks consistently along the shore with the only ones appreciating it is the nesting birds.
As the R.J.Hawke moored up just a few meters from the beach, a turtle pops it’s head up to check what human interruption disturbs it. We had no time to explain as we jumped overboard swiftly with all of our belongings sealed tightly in a barrel (with no pests inside – we checked).
Clambering up the shore dodging rolling coral heads and timing our steps with the swell, I set foot for the first time on an Island that sees less than 20 people a year.
For the next 2 days and nights it was my job to help count the red-footed booby bird chicks and the Cocos buff banded rail. It was hot and muggy and it didn’t take me long to realise why we needed long clothes. The mozzies were insatiable!
Like a good research scientists we trekked up and down our designated observation lines counting nests high in the trees and looking for signs of the rare endemic rail. It was tough going as I learn that scientific control lines make no adjustment for impenetrable jungle!
One night we went out on a full moon, about 12am, to watch a turtle make her tediously slow way up the beach to nest. We kept our distance and lights dim. As she finally got to the high tide something strange happened. We watched her try to get over the rubbish line. Sticks, bottles, old buckets and logs. She tried for about half an hour then retreated back to the ocean.
To be honest, I don’t know why she turned around. Maybe she wasn’t ready, or she got spooked. But the way I read it, she was intercepted and lost with all that unnatural crap in her way.
For an Island that is truly out of reach from people and still has no ‘pests’ it was awfully full of rubbish.
Makes me wonder… are we actually the pests?
Anyway, I don’t want to turn this travel story into a downer.
After days of trudging through the bush and hours of straining our necks looking for boobys being attacked by the devil’s insect all the while, we were rewarded with a tiny little buff banded rail sneaking through our camp.
We had seen none but heard many. The rail is a shy little flightless bird that has so many times avoided extinction from humans and cyclones. As they are only found on the Cocos there has been many efforts to keep them around for a little while longer.
I was so happy that we saw one and feel extremely privileged to have been given that opportunity to see the remote deserted Island that completes My Island home.