Kiritimati diving – August 2013

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An extended report on our Editor-in-Chief’s visit to Christmas Island or Kiritimati.

Kiritimati is a largely unknown dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – Google Maps.  Known in English as ‘Christmas Island’ though there’s two islands of that name, the other is an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

I’ll go into a lot more detail than usual because a lot of the information about Kirtimati is either missing, out of date or plain wrong.  Dive Kiribati has closed.  “Almost every week there is a cruise ship stoping by the island” on Wikivoyage is nonsense – there’s never been weekly cruises.  NCL did occasional voyages from Hawaii but they’ve stopped.  You’d be lucky if there were 4 or 5 cruises a year – large ships doing a trans-Pacific run.  As you’ll see from my report, the diving isn’t up to the boastful claims made.

This report is done on the basis of a shorter than usual, 4 night stay with 4 days of diving in August 2013.  That turned out to be a blessing in disguise.


Planning Ahead

Definitely book accommodation and activities (fishing/diving) before you arrive.  The island has limited resources so this isn’t a place to try your luck finding something off the plane.

There is no dive operation on the island (the dive shop has closed). No dive gear rental on the island so bring all your own equipment except for weights and tanks.   Bring a dive computer since the dive guide probably won’t have one.

Kiritimati uses the Australian dollar as a local currency so bring some along.  You probably won’t need a lot of cash because most accommodation is on an ‘all inclusive’ basis with room, meals and diving for a week (but be careful, see below).  Cash is mostly handy for tipping, perhaps some small purchases (there’s almost no retail opportunities), US/AU$50 for the fishing/diving permit on arrival and $20 departure tax.  There is one ATM on the island, but better not to rely on it.


Flights

There’s one pair of flights per week, scheduled for a Wednesday.  The weekly flights start in Nadi, Fiji just after midnight, arriving Christmas Island Airport (CXI) after dawn.  The plane does a daytime run to Honolulu and back to CXI before returning to Nadi on Wednesday evening.    All that means you can get to Kirtimati from Nadi or Honolulu each Wednesday. 

Despite being almost due south of Honolulu, Kiritimati is west of the date line (the same side as Fiji) and Honolulu is east of the dateline (US side).  So the Kiritimati flights operate on Wednesday for Fiji and CXI but Tuesday when in Honolulu.

Christmas Island airport (CXI) is basic and the runway only rated for daytime use.  When our plane arrived from Fiji we waited in a holding pattern until the sun rose.  Hard to believe we were in a holding pattern for an airport that only has two landings a week!

Or at least that’s the theory.  In August 2013, the weekly Christmas Island flight was delayed for 3 days.  Fiji Airways had an engine fire on one of their planes, everyone was OK but it meant one plane was out of action.  The airline had to shuffle their other planes for the available flights and the weekly Kiritimati flight was a low priority.  We finally left three days later than scheduled.  Fiji Airways provided accommodation and meals for those stranded, though be careful about which hotel is chosen since some Nadi hotels aren’t very good.  Some delayed passengers were sent  by Fiji Airways to Wioloaloa Beach Resort which is noisy, nowhere near a beach and generally pretty horrible. 

The flights themselves are 4-5 hours and best done asleep!  Fiji Airways has one movie playing on common screens, so bring your own book, Kindle or tablet for entertainment.


Arrival

The Christmas Island airport terminal is as basic as you can get with few huts comprising the entire passenger facilities.  There’s no visa needed for most countries but there is a fishing/diving licence required for US$50, though they accepted $50 Australian just as readily.


Arrivals, baggage collection, immigration, customs and VIP lounge at Cassidy International Airport, Christmas Island.

After immigration and the licence, collect your bags and go back into the same building for a quick customs check before leaving.  Reps from the few hotels are there to meet you.  Most likely someone will ask you which hotel you’ve booked for and point you to the right person.

Alcohol is limited to 1 litre per person, though I could not find online confirmation of this.   Given the limited availability and prices on the island it’s understandable that many people bring some duty-free hard liquor or beer with them.


Diving

Most people come here for the fishing, mostly fly-fishing for bonefish.

Since the closure of the local dive shop there’s no formal dive operation on Kiritimati.  However there are local dive masters around, weights, tanks and a compressor.   If you bring your own dive gear (maybe some spares?) then diving is certainly possible.  Tanks have yoke fitting, a DIN adapter might be available but better to bring your own.  Only standard 12lt/80 tanks available.  Air only.

There’s no diving formality.  No-one asked to see my PADI cards, no medical inquisition and no waivers – just gear up and drop in the water.  This isn’t a place for novice divers who rely on a dive master.  Only more experienced divers who are confident in their abilities and equipment should dive here.


Many of these blue ‘two tone’ fish.  You’ll often see their caudal (rear) fins sticking out of holes where they hide.


Octopus peering warily out of its burrow.  The octopus doesn’t just hide in a small overhang, it clearly gathers small rocks around the entrance for better cover.  My dive guide dug the poor creature out of it’s spot to make it swim around before heading back to the hole, leaving a stream of dark green ‘ink’ behind it.  (Greg Challenger reminds me that it’s actually purple but looks green underwater) Interesting to watch it come to a halt then try various camouflage options against the strange bubble making thing chasing it. It was weird to see the creatures suckers sticking firmly to the arm of the dive guide.


Diamond Eel

The dive sites are pleasant and pristine.  Lots of hard coral and many small fish which makes for a lovely underwater view.  Visibility is usually 30 metres but if there’s rain or tides unfavorable that can drop to 10-15 meter vis.  

Water is warm – around 28°C, I didn’t need a wetsuit. 

You definitely need a hat, sunscreen and covering when above the waterline.

Most dives were 18m or less.  The dive to Boland Caves went to 25m.

Surface intervals can be enlivened with some fishing for tuna or trevally (catch and release) or, if you’re lucky, some Spinner dolphins will put on a show.  Look out for flying fish that can travel an amazing distance across the wave tops.

There are two dive boats.  The larger one is preferable since it has a lot more shaded area.  The smaller boat ‘Wai Knot’ is big enough for a few divers but lacks shade.  There’s no camera bucket on the boat.   Ikari House has two-way radios on the boats, van and hotel which are used, among other things, to ensure there’s a van waiting at the dock when boats return.

The drive to the dock from Ikari takes only a few minutes while the trip to dive sites lasts 20 minutes max.  Dive sites are not marked and relies on the boat driver and dive guide knowledge.  We once spent a tedious 20 minutes just driving around trying to find the right spot to drop anchor.

The dive sites all had a sameness to them. All coral reefs with the same varieties of fish and coral.  Some moray and other eels.  The Boland Caves site is deeper, about 25 metres, but aren’t really caves.  One part is a modest archway while a few minutes away is an overhang.

I had only tantalizing glimpses of larger marine life.  One large Green Turtle appeared for a few seconds at Tabwakea Drift before speeding off.   A lone dolphin for a fleeting moment – my first while diving!  

There’s a large manta ray population feeding in the shallows (snorkeling available but the water is often murky) so presumably there are ‘cleaning stations’ in the area.  My dive guide didn’t seem to understand when I asked about cleaning stations.   Similarly there are probably some wall dive sites, if only for some variety, but none were on offer.

Overall, the diving was nice but not spectacular nor sufficiently varied.  Maybe I was unlucky but there were no regular sightings of rays, sharks or turtles at any site.  It’s possible that with a dive guide who chose better sites or just plain luck you could have amazing dive experiences here.

In the end, I was grateful for the flight delay, since four days of diving was enough.


Ikari House

I chose Ikari House since it was the only place that offered diving at all.  While they mostly serve fisherman, divers are welcome with prior arrangement.  Jacob Teem at Ikari will arrange the divemaster, boat, driver etc.

The rooms are basic but clean with air-conditioning, bathroom with hot shower.    Plenty of AC power sockets some 110v (US two flat pins) mostly 240v (Aussie style 3 pins).

Both inside and outside have large tables with plenty of hanging / drying space. There’s no rinse tank, only a small bucket outside each room.  Each room has its own hose with trigger nozzle.  The setup is good for fishing gear but still serviceable for divers.

There’s a daily laundry service included in the tariff.  Leave your clothes at the foot of your bed in the morning and they’ll reappear in the afternoon, clean and folded.  Aside from comfort, this means you don’t have to bring as many clothes.

Breakfast is around 6:30am, depending on when the majority fishermen are departing but can be later to suit a diving schedule.  Dinner is at 7pm.  Lunch is provided for all; a sandwich, fruit and your choice of snacks are put in an icebox with cold bottles of water.

Meals are in a large open area with nice views over the water. 

The meals are good quality, reputedly the best on the island.  Dinner has meat, fish, chicken or lobster with some salad, rice and potatoes. 


A typical Ikari House meal; lobster, steak, fried rice and coleslaw.

There’s pre-dinner appetizers, often fresh tuna sashimi.   Special diet requests are handled with prior notice.

Drinks.  Each guest gets three x 500ml of bottled water per day.  You pay for extra bottled water at $1.50 each.  Other drinks are available.  Canned Beer (Heineken or Budweiser) $3.50, soft drinks $2, tonic water $3.50.  Mark a board on the honour system and settle up at the end of the week.

Wifi is available but being a shared satellite connection it is very slow and erratic.  Therefore, webmail isn’t recommended; it’s better to use Outlook or some other email program to get your mail and store it on your laptop or tablet.  24 hours for $10, 1 hour for $1 that you can use as needed over time.

Ikari is close to the wharf, only a few minute’s drive while other Kiritimati hotels are a tedious, speed bumped, 15-20 minute drive away.

With all the good things about Ikari House there’s one big problem – money.  Ikari House runs a, shall we say, irregular accounting system.  Quotes are a single amount for a week with no breakdown into room, meals, diving etc.  

At the end of the week there was unnecessary confusion about what has to be paid, particularly on my shortened visit due to the 3 day flight delay.  I was originally quoted “$2550.00 includes all dives, boats, gear, tank rental, guide, accomodation, meals, and bottled water.” but that became a problem when it came to calculating the total for 4 night stay.  Even after I left there was a dispute about the final amount due with a calculation from the absent owner presented after departure for $250 more than what the staff and I had agreed upon.

The staff have no change available making final payments difficult, with guests scrambling with each other to get smaller denomination notes.   Whether this is just disorganization or deliberate practice I cannot say.

Do not prepay Ikari House, they have a long standing reputation with travelers and sporting fishermen  of not refunding monies paid and adding large charges after extra services have been provided.  During my shortened stay the fishermen, who had prepaid for a week, were not given any refund of the 3 unused days amounting to around $1,000 each.    

For this reason I’m reluctant to recommend Ikari House.  If you do choose to stay, get a detailed quote that includes a breakdown of how it is calculated (accommodation, meals, dives etc) what is included and what is excluded.  If you ask for additional services, make sure the cost is clear upfront.  Take some small Aussie dollar bills to make close to exact payment.  Insist on a receipt for cash paid. 


Departure

Leaving Christmas Island is a little more involved than usual.  First line up for a manual inspection of hold luggage.  You may have to wait while locals have boxes and buckets checked before being put in plastic bags and taped up.  Then another queue for a boarding pass.  

An AUD$20 departure tax has to be paid in cash.

Then there’s a long and possibly hot wait for the plane.  Most people go outside and find shade under palm trees.

Do NOT go through security to the departure area until the plane has landed and passengers start disembarking.  The post-security departure area is a small room with benches that can be quite uncomfortable and stifling.  Better to stay outside until boarding is imminent.


Summary

The diving was pleasant but hardly spectacular.  After a few days I was seeing much the same coral reefs and marine life just in different locations.   

Perhaps with a willingness by the guide/manager to go further from the wharf, better guides or better luck there’s more interesting and varied diving available.  Kiritimati certainly seems to have the potential.

Given the difficulties and cost of a trip, there’s probably better places to spend your diving time and money.  A mixed fishing and diving trip is a possibility for breaking up a week.  The fishermen were having a much better time and it’s a hotspot for sporting fishermen from around the world.

In the end I was strangely grateful to Fiji Airways for the long delay in arriving.  After four days of diving I’d seen enough of Kiritimati with no reasonable expectation that the diving would be more varied if I stayed longer.


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