We sail to Australia’s Indian Ocean islands and learn that both wildlife and humans are threatened by plastic pollution and sea level rise.

Darwin (AUS) – Cocos Keeling (AUS)

“Definitely?” Floris tries one last time. “Yes, definitely”, Ivar says in a resolute tone. After months of deliberation, the decision is final: we’re not going to Asia. It saddens us a bit, as we would have loved to experience the culture, taste the food, and meet the various peoples of Asian countries. We had even identified some sustainable solutions to document – such as a successful initiative by a young Balinese woman that tackles plastic waste at the source . However, because of the pandemic, we ended up spending 18 months in New Zealand. Some of that time was reserved for Asia in our original plan. Our back-up plan was to visit Indonesia briefly on our way to South Africa. Unfortunately, clearance for sailors proves too expensive and complicated for the limited time we have. For that reason, we dismiss of that option, too.

“Let’s look at it from the bright side”, Ivar suggests. “Now we have more time to spend on the islands between mainland Australia and Indonesia.” The thought of visiting places that even Australians have barely heard of cheers us up. What will we find in these remote places?

Big Brother

Departing Darwin is a bit of a hassle. Immigration officers have to visit our boat, even though our next destination is Australian territory. However, the two border force officers could not be nicer. They even give us a departing present: a pen!

After manoeuvring out of our tight spot in the marina and going through the lock, we hoist the sails and slowly leave the city behind us. Soon, the skyscrapers are tiny specks on the horizon. The coastland is so flat, it’s hardly perceptible. We are the only sailboat on the water yet a few hours after leaving Darwin we get a call on the VHF. “Lucipara 2, this is the Australian Border Force”. Ivar answers the call while a noisy plane flies low over our heads. He is subjected to a long list of questions. “Our home port is Amsterdam and there are two persons on board.” He shakes his head. Didn’t we just give the same information to their colleagues in Darwin? The following days are no different. The same questions from the ABF, either from another aircraft or a patrol vessel. Patiently and politely we keep answering. “Big Brother is watching us!” Ivar laughs. “Yes, Fort Australia is well guarded,” Floris counters.

A Welcome Stopover

On day five, a green spot appears on our plotter: Ashmore Reef. Although we are close to Indonesia, the reef still belongs to Australia. It is almost entirely submerged, but offers shelter from the ocean swell. There are even mooring buoys. “We’re going to celebrate my birthday there!” Ivar cheers.

It takes some puzzling as to where we can enter the sheltered lagoon, but then we see breaking swell that marks the location of the treacherous reefs. In the early morning we sail through the entrance, past a gigantic ABF patrol ship. We follow a buoyed channel to the mooring buoys, swiftly slip a line through one of them and settle in to enjoy the calmness. Except for a small sandy island, we’re surrounded by water as far as we can see. Moments later, a fast rib comes towards us with three ABF officers in it. They explain to us what we are allowed to do. The whole area is a nature reserve, so they take strict action against disturbing birds and illegal fishing. Violators are arrested and their ships burned. “Leave that fishing line alone for a while”, Floris whispers to Ivar.


As we inflate our kayak, an American boat enters the lagoon, SV Maia. When they are safely moored, we paddle to them. “Are you coming to dinner tonight? It’s my birthday”, Ivar beams. “It’s our crew member’s birthday too,” Laura laughs. “We’ll bring the cake!”

We marvel at the coincidence, say goodbye and kayak towards an uninhabited island. We pull the kayak onto a sandbar and continue on foot. Once on the island, we run out of superlatives. “Uninhabited, you said? Have a look!” Floris jokes. Thousands of birds fly above us, fish in the waters around us, sit on the beach and nest in bushes. They seem to be as curious about us as we are about them. Fluffy chicks of frigate birds, boobies, and terns briefly turn their heads to us before their attention is back on their parents. Relentlessly, they take turns bringing food to their chicks. They don’t have to worry about predators and will encounter only a few people in their lifetime. “What a special place to celebrate my birthday, in the middle of untouched nature”, Ivar muses.

Rolling Westward

After plenty of bird watching, snorkelling, and a lovely birthday dinner with Laura, Dick, and Hannah, we say farewell to the reef. Our next destination is in the Indian Ocean, 1,000 miles away. The trip starts on almost flat seas with just enough wind to fill our gennaker. We don’t make many miles, but are happy with every bit of progress. After a day, the southeast trade wind picks up to about twenty knots. We emerge from the lee of the Australian mainland, which exposes us to a south-westerly swell that is mixed with the waves from the south-easterly wind. The result is incessant rolling, as Luci gets hit by waves from two directions. Is this a taste of the conditions that make the southern Indian Ocean infamous? The only interruption of the rolling are irregular beatings that knock the boat to one side while gushes of ocean water drench the deck. Going to the bathroom, cooking, sleeping, even sitting down is an effort and takes its toll. We are constantly tired and grumpy.

It may be uncomfortable, but we’re sailing fast. The current also helps: we have more than one knot of current with us, which means we cover 24-hour distances of more than 170 miles. If we keep it up, we may even arrive in time to celebrate Floris’ birthday on land!

Birthday Island

“Christmas Island? When Captain William Mynors sailed past this island in 1643, it was Christmas. It’s Birthday Island for us!” Ivar jokes. With the first daylight on Floris’s birthday, eight days after setting sail from Ashmore Reef, we arrive at the island’s only anchorage: Flying Fish Cove. “There is one free mooring”, the harbourmaster explains. “But please wait for the cargo ship to moor”. Ivar nods towards the giant terminal. “It’s going to load phosphate.” While we wait, we admire the lush surroundings and follow birds on the acrobatic flights over the bay.

After checking in, again with very friendly officials, we follow a walking track through the forest. The path steadily climbs and leads up to a viewpoint. On the way, we have to be careful not to step on red crabs. Thousands of them nibble on fallen tree leaves, hardly moving when we walk past. “When the hurricane season starts, millions of them migrate to the sea. The roads will then be closed to protect them”, Floris knows. We can only image how red the streets must look when they take over.

Not Idyllic

From the viewpoint we look over the bay where Luci is anchored. The gigantic phosphate terminal disrupts the otherwise picturesque panorama. The other stain on the island is hidden from view, the prison. “Foreigners who have come to Australia illegally or whose residence permit has been revoked are detained here, sometimes for years,” Floris reads from an article he found on the topic. “Not every tropical island is equally idyllic,” Ivar remarks.

The next day, we see more evidence of Christmas Island’s schizophrenic image. Hayley and Kyle, two Australian sailors who just started working at a local resort, generously take us on a tour of “their” island. We walk through original forests, bathe under a pristine waterfall, and spot the island’s endemic birds. All the while we talk endlessly about sailing, distant destinations, and sustainability. We descend on stunning beaches, but once there we are shocked: unfathomable amounts of plastic float in the sea and cover large parts of the beach. Coconut crabs scurry among the junk that washes up here from all over the Indian Ocean. Within no-time each of us has filled the large garbage bags that we took along. Despite our best efforts, we realize that we hardly made it a dent. So much work remains to be done. Most importantly, the problem of plastic pollution must be tackled at the source.

A Touch of Asia After All

Our new Australian friends understand the dilemma of our route. Sailing means making choices. “But you will also find a piece of Asia here. We are only 200 miles from Java and there is a lot of Asian culture here!” To back up their words, they show us the mosque, an Islamic cemetery and small temples scattered around the island. A large proportion of the island’s inhabitants are of Asian descent and still practice the religion of their ancestors. Many of the shops are run by Asians and they sell all kinds of products from their continent. “We can soak up a bit of Asian culture after all,” Ivar smiles.

Paradise on Earth?

The trade winds are picking up again, so we decide to hoist our sails for the next leg. Luci picks up speed as we steer a westerly course, leaving Birthday Island slowly behind us. We pick up where we left: uncomfortable but fast sailing. After four days, Ivar is the first to spot land. “There, palm trees!” he shouts. “Those are the Cocos Islands, also known as the Keeling Islands”.

The group of islands are as flat as a pancake. Around them is a ring of coral measuring about 6 by 8 miles, which we need to navigate around to reach the anchorage. Ivar steers Luci to an opening in the ring on the north-eastern side. Left and right of us the ocean swell break violently on the reef, but once through the pass we quickly get into calm waters. As we follow the buoys to the anchorage, we can see how vast the lagoon is. “It looks like an atoll in French Polynesia,” Ivar smiles. “Such a paradise, in the middle of the Indian Ocean!” Are we indeed in Valhalla or is there a threat behind the façade?

The anchor drops to a depth of 10 meters, where we see it fall into the sand. We are now more than 1,000 miles from mainland Australia, much closer to Sumatra, but this group of islands is still part of Australia. We therefore call the Australian Federal Police on our VHF radio to report our arrival. While we wait for the authorities, we can’t believe our eyes. Snow-white beaches and tall coconut palms lure us ashore.

After we’re checked in, we explore Direction Island. This is the exclusive area of sailing yachts, miles away from the villages on the other islands. We stroll along the immaculate beach until we come across a picnic area, with sheltered benches, tables and barbecues. It’s still Australia, of course. There’s even WiFi! We also admire the many works of art with names of yachts and crews. Painted wooden signs, plastic buoys and shell creations are the silent witnesses of the sailing crews that preceded us and stopped here. We completely understand why!

Snorkelling Frenzy

A hiking trail takes us to ‘The Rip’, a beautiful snorkel spot on the south side of the island. The ocean waves wash over the outer reef here, causing a strong, consistent current. Below us, razor sharp coral covers the ocean floor. “It gets deep quickly, so it should be just fine,” Floris assesses. He puts on his snorkel mask and takes a deep dive. Ivar jumps in after him.

Immediately the water drags us along. We steer with our hands and feet to stay in the deep part, keeping a safe distance from the reefs. Mother nature is going the extra mile for us, it seems. Coral in many varieties and colours and countless types of fish, especially large ones, surround us. Dozens of parrotfish gnaw undisturbed on dead pieces of coral, while a gigantic napoleon fish swims quietly in circles. A sea turtle watches us from behind a coral rock and sharks lie on the ocean floor, resting. As we swim to the beach, we see a colourful Picasso triggerfish burrowing in the white sand.

“Again!” Ivar shouts. We can’t get enough of this enchanting place. Much later, tired from swimming, we paddle back to Luci. We take a sip of fresh coconut milk, absorb the awesome tropical scenery and feel like we’re actually in paradise!

The Remote Junction

Cocos Keeling is more than just a popular stopover for global sailors en route from Australia or Asia to South Africa. Numerous information boards on Direction Island tell the exciting story of a former radio station, which was fought over in both world wars. Back in the day, transoceanic radio cables came together on this island, which made this junction an important link in the allied communications network.

Nowadays, the island also turns out to be a junction for something completely different: a stream of plastic waste. There is so much washed up junk on the ocean side of the islands, that cleaning up is an almost impossible task. The rubbish dump stretches for miles, as far as the eye can see. We fall silent. “And to think that 95% of ocean plastic sinks. We are literally looking at the tip of the plastic iceberg,” Ivar sighs.

Island Under Threat

When the strong winds abate for a day, we paddle two miles to the main settlement on Home Island. The first thing we see there is the local cemetery. A substantial dyke of sandbags is meant to prevent it from washing away. A few fallen coconut palms on the adjacent beach are silent witnesses of the rising sea levels.

“Currently, sea levels are rising on average by almost half a centimetre every year,” Ivar says. “Add to that the fact that hurricanes are getting stronger, which further threatens the low-lying country here.” At the sailing club next to the village, a strip of waste plastic marks the high-water line, which is almost at street level. Nothing is elevated here. Streets, houses, vegetable gardens: everything is flat and low. “How much longer can people live here? This island is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise,” Ivar notes.

Eventful History

Home Island also harbours the town hall, where we get the key to the local museum. We can roam around on our own and learn about the history of the island. When British Captain William Keeling passed the island in 1609 and named it after himself, it was uninhabited. It remained that way until about 200 years ago.

In 1827, the Scottish sailor and trader John Clunies-Ross founded a settlement here with his family. He started a coconut plantation and brought workers from Malaysia and Indonesia. The Clunies-Ross family ruled the island in a dictatorial way for 150 years, earning them the nickname Kings of the Cocos. The Asian workers were not to have contact with the outside world. They were paid in currency that the Clunies-Ross family minted themselves and which could only be spent in their shop. Today about 600 people live there, most of them descendants of the coconut workers. They determine the street scene on Home Island, together with their faith. We stroll past a large mosque, see texts in Malaysian everywhere and smell Asian food.

We Make the Future Ourselves

Most coconuts are no longer picked up; tourism has become the main source of income. But for how much longer? Has human civilization on this island run out of time? The IPCC’s most recent climate scenarios vary: 40 centimetres to more than a meter of sea level rise is predicted by 2100, depending on how much we allow the climate crisis to get out of hand.

“The risk of so-called tipping points, such as ice shelves breaking off in Antarctica, is not even included in these predictions. So, if things go wrong, sea-level rise can get much worse,” Ivar notes. “Considering that the residents here have hardly contributed to the climate crisis, it is so unfair that their survival is threatened by its consequences,” Floris adds.

A week later we sail on with mixed feelings. We leave a paradise behind us, but one that is being suffocated by plastic and about to be swallowed by the ocean. “It’s up to all of us to do something about it!” Ivar concludes. “After all, we know what needs to be done, on a large and small scale. Throughout our journey we have encountered numerous solutions to the many challenges we face, like the generation and storage of renewable energy, ways to grow food in harmony with nature, and a wide variety of smart solutions to tackle plastic pollution at the source. These need to be scaled-up as soon as possible, not just for the residents of Cocos Keeling, but ultimately for the survival of all of us.

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