The Crabs of Christmas

Date: Aug. 1, 2016, 4 a.m. Position: 10 25.00 S, 105 43.00 E

Christmas Island unquestionably belongs to the crabs. They occupy nearly every nook and cranny across the island, tucking themselves into the naturally occurring holes of pockmarked volcanic rock, clawing over the curved roots of the Tahitian chestnut tree, ducking into hollow, decaying tree trunks, and generally scurrying about the musty rainforest across a carpet of moss, fungi, a mess of leaves and a landscape of well fertilized dirt. The forest understory is scant as the land has little defense against these creatures. They’ve tilled and softened the earth with trillions of holes so that each step is an uncertain one.

The vibrantly colored reddish-orange crabs, of cross-island mass migration fame, are conspicuous against the forest floor while other crabs in shades of brown, blue and gray are often somewhat camouflaged. There are some 20 crab species on the island, including robber crabs (known previously to us as coconut crabs), nearly as big as basketballs and dwarfing the ones we’d seen in Fiji. Here they grow larger than anywhere else of earth. Immense, a bit intimidating, and apparently opportunistic, they live up to their name if personal effects are left unattended. Around these parts, you wouldn’t dare sleep out under the stars for a night.

Days of sporadic downpours brought the crabs out in hordes, to our delight. We’d been under the impression that we had to seek them out but, as it turns out, the crabs were simply everywhere and unavoidable. A few months shy of the November red crab migration, we got a sense of what a spectacular phenomenon it must be, undoubtedly one of the great wonders of the natural world. Looking ahead on the trail with a panoramic sweep revealed the forest floor alive with minute movements. Hiking about required a constant eye to the ground as we gingerly zig-zagged our way through the staggered line of crabs. Similarly, out on the roads we found ourselves cautiously swerving around them despite the foot-high metal barrier in place to keep the crabs out of harm’s way. Shame falls upon anyone who accidentally hits an enormous robber crab while driving. The fatality is added to the month’s total and broadcast on the community chalkboard, stationed prominently in the main roundabout for all to see as they drive into town. Crabs clearly rule here.

Outside of the town area, the island is nearly all national park, a rugged landscape of steep, jagged cliffs, remote beaches and interior rainforest home to many endemic plant and animal species. Without a 4WD little of the island’s thick jungle can be accessed, so we were lucky that some generous locals loaned us their Land Cruiser (even outfitted with a car seat), fit to navigate steep roads of loose gravel, skirt potholes, and straddle washouts. Initially we traveled along extra wide, flat gravel roads laid for the “land trains,” the multi-bed semi-trucks that transport the island’s phosphate reserves to the loading dock. Drooping vines gently swept across our windshield even along these more manicured roads. Pockets of trees rising tall and as wild looking as Dr. Seuss’ Lorax trees forced our view upwards along their spindly trunks. Spurs off of the main roads led to the island’s natural attractions and some of the most rugged driving we’ve ever done, with signs everywhere clearly indicating 4WD ONLY. Fortunately, our vehicle performed like a monster truck, tackling any potential obstacle with appropriate vigor.

Taz was a happy camper riding around in a car for a change, with a front seat (and very illegal) view. During our island tour he splashed around in the shallow waters at the base of a moss-laden waterfall, got misted by salt spray at the lively local blowholes, and poked into countless crab holes with his stick. Although he’s terrified of his wind-up crab on the boat, he showed no fear in approaching the real thing. Under the canopy of Arenga palms, and from the vantage point of his hiking backpack, Taz enjoyed spotting the obvious red crabs and counting them, “One, two!” or “Many!” We mistakenly left our mosquito repellant behind and he looked a bit worse for the wear at the day’s end, like the survivor of some backwoods boot camp. Fortunately we were more bothered by our negligence than he by the bites!

Along the roadsides, a strange sight caught our eyes–stakes with dangling sausages. From our conversations with park employees, we knew that these sausages were injected with a poison known as 1080, with the purpose of killing off the feral cats that are a threat to the endemic bird population. This long-term eradication program involves many employed in the day-to-day work of “cat baiting.” In a strange and disconcerting twist, we saw a coconut crab at one of the bait stations, aggressively swatting at the sausages. With its apparent determination and physical prowess, the crab likely made quick work of the poisoned meat.

Long live the crabs!

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