What Should I Know About the Cocos Islands?

Brendan McGuigan

The Cocos Islands and Keeling Islands are a small territory in the Indian Ocean. They cover just over 5 square miles (14 sq. km), and have a population of just under 700 people. Geographically the islands are rather remote, falling somewhere between Australia and Sri Lanka.

The clear waters of the Cocos Islands makes them ideal for scuba diving trips.
The clear waters of the Cocos Islands makes them ideal for scuba diving trips.

The Cocos Islands are made up of two atolls. North Keeling Island is one large horseshoe-shaped island. The South Keeling Islands is a large atoll with 26 individual islets, but only two of these islets are truly inhabited.

The Cocos Islands have beautiful beaches.
The Cocos Islands have beautiful beaches.

The islands were uninhabited when they were first discovered by the British captain William Keeling in the early 17th century. The islands remained uninhabited for the next century, until a coconut plantation was eventually established. A Scottish merchant, John Clunies-Ross, set up a permanent base on the island, proclaiming himself King of the Cocos Islands. In 1886 Queen Victoria granted the islands to King Clunies-Ross and his descendants.

The Cocos Islands played important roles in both World War I and World War II, serving as a cable station to connect the United Kingdom and Australia. Following the war, the islands were handed over to the Australian government in 1955, although the Clunies-Ross continued to run the island as a monarchy. Through the 1970s the Australian government became increasingly unhappy with the style of rule the Clunies-Ross family practiced on the islands, and in 1978 purchased the islands from the family under threat of forcible acquisition. Then King John Clunies-Ross retired to exile in Perth, and his descendants continue to live on the Cocos Islands.

The Cocos Islands are some of the more remote tropical islands in the world, with the nearest land being the Christmas Islands, some 560 miles (900km) away. Beautiful sandy beaches, gorgeous clear water, and friendly locals make the island a great getaway for people who want to travel far off the beaten path while still remaining in a tropical paradise.

There are no resorts on the island, and most lodgings are simple affairs, with minimal amenities. A decent infrastructure exists for transportation and activities, however, with guided cultural tours, and diving and snorkeling expeditions available for reasonable rates. The culture of the Cocos Islands is fascinating, and simply experiencing the people is something most visitors remark on. As an isolated group made up predominantly of Muslim Malay and Scottish Protestants, the islands have an interesting blend of festivals and a unique outlook. Visitors should take care when on the Home Island to dress somewhat modestly out of respect for the deeply Muslim sensibilities there.

The Pulu Keeling National Park is one of the most impressive natural sites on the Cocos Islands, but because of the danger in getting to the park and to sensitivity of the local fauna, travel there is available only in the company of a licensed tour operator or a Park staff member.

Small flights arrive twice a week in the Cocos Islands from Perth, Australia, and once a week from Christmas Island. Boats very rarely come in to the Cocos Islands, due to their remoteness, and the difficulty of anchoring there. These are some of the most isolated islands in the world, so it is important to have a plan not only to get there, but to get back, as well, lest you end up stranded for weeks longer than you anticipated.

The Coco Islands were uninhabited until the 18th century when a coconut plantation was established there.
The Coco Islands were uninhabited until the 18th century when a coconut plantation was established there.

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