CHRISTMAS
ISLAND
The Isle of Morays
"Morays might not be a big attraction for some divers, but I have always found them fascinating creatures, with interesting personalities and a wonderful range of colour patterns."

Christmas Island is well known in diving circles for its bigger visitors, but as Nigel Marsh explains, it should also be renowned for the variety of moray eels that call the island home
Photographs by Nigel Marsh / www.nigelmarshphotography.com

Christmas Island is famous for many things. It is famous for millions of red crabs that migrate each year across the island to spawn in the sea. And among divers, it is famous for its incredible diving on walls, sea caves and the chance of encountering whalesharks, spinner dolphins and silky sharks. But it should also be famous for its moray eels.

I have wanted to visit Christmas Island for ages, having heard wonderful things about the diving at this remote island paradise. While exploring coral walls and sea caves is exciting, the thing that most enticed me to dive Christmas Island was the chance of seeing some rare moray eels. Morays might not be a big attraction for some divers, but I have always found them fascinating creatures, with interesting personalities and a wonderful range of colour patterns. I had heard that a dozen species could be seen at Christmas Island, including the most-spectacular member of the family – the dragon moray.

Located south of Java in the Indian Ocean, Christmas Island is an Australian Territory. However, it shares more in common with Asia than Australia in both its population and wildlife, above and below the water line. This especially applies to morays, with many of the species seen here not found around the Australian mainland.

Getting to Christmas Island is time consuming, involving a long flight from Perth, via Cocos (Keeling) Islands. However, the two-day journey from the east coast is well worth the effort when you get that first view of the harbour at Flying Fish Cove being lapped by blue waters.

Our first stop, after checking into our motel, was to visit Extra Divers and get a rundown of our diving for the next week. David Watchorn, the manager of Extra Divers, ran through the briefing and explained that we would be doing a double boat dive in the morning and then have the afternoon free to explore the island and also do as many shore dives as we wanted in Flying Fish Cove. As part of our package with Extra Divers, we got a RAV4 hire car between four people, giving us the freedom to explore and shore dive.

Did you know?“ Moray eels have few predators. Their predators are usually the apex predator in their ecosystem. Grouper, barracuda, sharks and humans are common predators of moray eels. However, moray eels and grouper have been found to work together at times to hunt! ”Flying Fish CoveSnowflake morayDivers checking out soft corals“ The morays are split into two different families, the true morays which most divers are familiar with, and the rarer snake-morays ”My hunt for moray eels started on the first dive at Lost Lake Cave. A giant stride into the water found me surrounded by 40 metre visibility and in balmy 29°C water. We descended on a sloping wall packed with healthy hard corals and the first thing I spotted was a whitemouth moray hanging out of a hole. After a few images of this pretty moray, we followed our guide Joanne (Jo) on a gentle drift dive.

I kept an eye out for morays, but soon found myself astounded by the amazing variety of fishes that I had never seen before. This surprised me as I had dived may spots across the Indian Ocean, but Christmas Island seemed to have a whole population of fishes I had never encountered before. There were wrasses, surgeonfish and triggerfish, but the two that most impressed me were the cheeky ornate hawkfish and the small endemic Cocos angelfish.

On this dive we also spotted grey reef sharks, trevally, rock cods, fusiliers and a good variety of butterflyfish. The next dive at West White Beach was similar, but with lots of sea anemones populated with anemonefish. On the moray front I found another whitemouth moray, but that was it. Whitemouth morays are also seen on the mainland, so I was starting to wonder where were all the unique morays?

David and Jo then gave me the tip that Flying Fish Cove was the best spot for morays, so after a quick lunch this is where we headed for our first shore dive. You can enter from the shore or via the large jetty in the middle of the bay, either way you end up in a shallow bay covered in lovely coral gardens. We explored the coral garden and the dropoff, which plummets to 400m, but again no morays. Instead, I was stunned by the incredible fish life.

Many friends had told me that Flying Fish Cove is one of the best shore dives they had ever done, and I could see why as there were reef fishes everywhere. Parrotfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, wrasse, pufferfish, hawkfish, grubfish, triggerfish, surgeonfish, lionfish, scorpionfish and boxfish. I must have spotted 20 fishes I had never seen before, with this list including a leopard toby, blackpatch triggerfish, cocopeel angelfish and a guineafowl puffer.

Going back to the dive shop for more tanks I said to David that I didn’t see any morays. He informed me there is a patch of nobby coral at 20m where they always see lots of morays, including the dragon moray in the past. But he also added that the last time they saw a dragon moray was two years ago!

Did you know?Moray eels reproduce by fertilization that is oviparous, when eggs and sperm are fertilized in the water outside the womb, also known as spawning. On average, female moray eels can release 10,000 eggs at a time.Divers exploring Thundercliff CavePyramid butterflyfishFamous red crabMasked morayUndeterred, we headed back in for a late-afternoon dive, and swam straight to the drop-off and this nobby coral. Arriving at the coral I spotted the first moray in seconds, a masked moray. This species is not seen on the mainland, so I was very happy to see one. I shot dozens of photos of it hanging out of its hole, and I was a bit surprised at how agro it was, shooting back and forth and snapping at passing fish. I then looked up and realised that this coral was seething with morays, as popping out of every hole were masked morays. I counted six, but there could have been more as they kept popping up and down, and they were all just as agro as the first moray.

I then looked around hoping the dragon moray had miraculously reappeared. I investigated every nook and cranny, but there was no sign of this rare and elusive moray. I did spot what I thought was a giant moray, but a review of my images later showed me it had an unusual pattern. I still don’t know what species it is?

The next day we visited one of Christmas Island’s premier dive sites, Perpendicular Wall. We started this dive in a large overhang full of gorgonians and it just got better from there. The wall at this site is covered in spectacular corals – colourful soft corals, gorgonians, whip corals and sponges and also masses of fish. We spotted batfish, rainbow runners and whitetip reef sharks, but missed the scalloped hammerhead that Jo spotted. This was also a great spot for masked morays, with groups of them hanging out of every hole.

We quickly got into a routine, two wonderful boat dives each morning, then back for lunch before spending the afternoon at Flying Fish Cove. I kept looking for the dragon moray, and on the way spotted many other wonderful fishes.

The next day we dived pretty coral gardens at Chicken Farm and explored our first sea cave at Daniel Roux Cave. With the island made of basalt and limestone, there are dozens of sea caves cutting into the cliffs. Daniel Roux Cave was large enough to contain our entire dive group with room to spare. Exiting the cave we could hear dolphins. A resident pod of spinner dolphins often join divers at Christmas Island, but they eluded us. We surfaced to be informed by David that a whaleshark had swam near the boat while we were exploring the cave!

Surfacing in Thundercliff CaveTiger snakemorayFlying Fish Cove wharfAfter another wonderful afternoon dive at Flying Fish Cove I thought it was time to do a night dive and really have a serious look for morays, as most are more active after dark. We started under the jetty, finding octopus, flounders and a pair of false stonefish. Moving over to the coral gardens we found lionfish, many crustaceans and finally an impressive giant moray. Heading back to the jetty I played my torched over a coral head and saw a very unexpected sight, a tiger snake-moray.

The morays are split into two different families, the true morays which most divers are familiar with, and the rarer snake-morays. The easiest way to tell the difference between them is by their fins, with true morays having a long dorsal fin running the length of their body and merging with the anal fin. Snake-morays lack this fin, so are more snakelike, and they are also shy and rarely seen.

Seeing this tiger snake-moray was a huge bonus. As we watched, it slowly slid across the coral head looking for prey. But wary of our lights it gradually disappeared into a hole.

Thundercliff Cave left us spellbound the next day. This massive sea cave was home to soldierfish, bullseyes and small shrimps. But upon surfacing in this cave we could see a ceiling dotted with stalactites, some even continued underwater. The reef adjacent to this cave was also very pretty and home to a yellow-margin moray.

We then dived the only shipwreck at Christmas Island, the Eidsvoid. This 116-metre-long cargo ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in World War Two and now lies broken up on the reef in depths from 6m to 20m. It was an interesting dive, and the wreckage was home to a good variety of fishes.

Another night dive at Flying Fish Cove and I was hoping for some more moray action. This time we spotted a snowflake moray and a rarely seen yellowheaded moray. Snowflake morays are a common species, but also one of the few morays that have blunt teeth, designed to smash the shells of crabs. The yellowheaded moray is much rarer and generally only seen in Asia. This one was unfortunately shy and decided to hide under a boulder.

Another moray species was spotted the next day at The Morgue. Unfortunately, I had my wide-angle lens on my camera so couldn’t get a photo of the two beautiful ribbon eels at this site. But I was grateful I had on this lens for a snorkel with a pack of giant trevally. These giant trevally gather in a cove where the fishers clean their catch and are great fun to snorkel with. David brought some bait to feed them which got them really moving. Silky sharks also gather in this cove, but they were absent during our stay.

Our finally night dive at Flying Fish Cove produced a few more morays, but I was after another type of eel, as snake eels also live in the sand between coral heads. I took almost 30 minutes to find, but it was worth the hunt to see a crocodile snake eel. And you can understand why it took so long, as all I could see was its sandy coloured head, which was barely 2cm long!

I had a fabulous time at Christmas Island, seeing a vast array of unique marine life. And even though I didn’t see that dragon moray, the species I did see were reward enough.