Lonely Planet Writer

See Christmas Island's astounding red crab migration from the comfort of your laptop

One of the most extraordinary natural sights in the world has been brought to life in a new virtual reality project by Google.

Every year, millions of red crabs move from their forest homes to the beaches of Christmas Island where they breed. The mass migration, which sees almost every inch of the island sands blanketed with crabs, was described as one of the world’s great natural wonders by legendary documentary maker David Attenborough.

Ethel Beach on Christmas Island. Image by Google

Now Google have teamed up with Parks Australia to bring the incredible story of the Christmas Island crabs to virtual life. They’ve created a Google Earth site that allows users to see the geography of the Indian Ocean island and track the crabs as they move towards the breeding site.

Special cameras that captured the mass migration were flown in and taken around the island by volunteers. For most of the year, the 45 million red crabs live in the forest foraging for leaves and fruit before retreating to their metre-long burrows. The migration usually begins in November and December with the male crabs setting off a few days before the females so that they can dig in and defend their mating burrows.

Merrial Beach Track, Christmas Island. Image by Google

Once breeding begins, the female crabs then brood their eggs for around a fortnight before spawning takes place when the moon is at its dimmest. That gives the larvae the best chance of making it off the beach and into the ocean safely, where for three or four weeks they develop before re-emerging as baby crabs.

Christmas Island red land crabs Gecarcoidea natalis on migration to ocean to spawn at night. Image by Sue Flood/Getty Images

If you want to see the red crab migration for real, then getting to Christmas Island is of course possible. There are a few commercial flights in and out each week, flying from Jakarta in Indonesia or Perth in Western Australia. The red crabs are not the only attraction on the island. It has – because of its remote location – a rich ecosystem with 600 species of tropical fish, 14 different types of land crabs, more than 100 bird species, and four native reptiles.