The Cocos-Keeling Islands are a far-flung Australian horse-shoe of low-lying coral islets in the Indian Ocean, 2700km north-west of Perth and 900km west of their nearest neighbour the Christmas Islands. First sighted in 1609 by Captain William Keeling, they weren’t settled until the early 19th century when 100 predominantly Malay slaves were brought onto Home Island to work the coconut groves that provide the Islands’ forename and to this day represent their sole export. The slaves soon fled to emancipation on Direction Island to work for a Scotsman, Captain Ross, whose family were granted the Kingdom by Britain’s Queen Victoria and reigned until 1978 when King Ross V sold up to Australia. The new owners defended the area during World War I, and at the Battle of Cocos beached the German warship SMS Emden to join a handful of historic wrecks littering the kaleidoscopic reefs. HMS Beagle enjoyed a more auspicious visit towards the end of her famous second voyage. As Charles Darwin observed, the atoll “surely ranks high amongst the wonderful objects of this world” – he was admiring the archetypal coral lagoon-island, and found little but coconuts and insects on land yet an abundance of exotic bird and sealife. Of more interest to us though are his frequent references to the “steady action of the trade-wind,” and, “unrelenting power of the waves”– two primary factors in the origin of our species. Today, Darwin would surely note that Aussie windsurfers and kiters annually migrate here to escape the mainland winter and ride in eternally paradisiacal conditions. Natural selection ensures that most thrive on the lagoon in constant moderate winds, because on the leeward west coast it’s survival of the fittest on one of the planet’s most awesome – and fearsome – waves.
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