Coral Sea Islands Territory

Brown Noddy Anous stolidus ©Andy Walker Website
Birding the Coral Sea Islands Territory

The Coral Sea Islands Territory includes a group of small tropical islands and reefs in the Coral Sea, northeast of Queensland, Australia, around 18° S 152° E. There are about 30 separate reefs and atolls, 12 of them wholly submerged or drying only during low tide, and 18 others with a total of about 51 islets and cays (18 alone on the atoll Lihou Reef and Cays), some of which are vegetated. The atolls exhibit a wide range of size, from a few kilometres in diameter to perhaps the second largest atoll in the world by total area (including lagoon): Lihou Reef, with a lagoon size of 100 by 30 km and an area of 2,500 km². The islands are all very low.

The atolls are scattered over a sea area of about 1 million km². The Willis Islets (Willis Group) are important nesting areas for birds and turtles, but their natural resources are negligible. They comprise less than three square kilometres of land. There is no port or harbour, only offshore anchorage.

The territory was created in 1969 by the Coral Sea Islands Act (before, the area was considered part of Queensland) and extended in 1997 to include Middleton Reef and Elizabeth Reef nearly 800 km further South in the Tasman Sea. The two latter reefs are indeed much closer to Lord Howe Island, New South Wales (about 150 km) than to the southernmost island of the rest of the territory, Cato Island. The islands, cays and reefs of the Great Barrier Reef are not part of the territory, belonging to Queensland instead. The outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef is the boundary between Queensland and the Coral Sea Islands Territory.Mellish Reef, being about 300 kilometres to the east of the Northwestern Group, thus the most distant from the Australian continent of all the reefs and atolls of the Coral Sea Islands Territory, is not considered to be part of any group. It has the outline of a boomerang-shaped platform around 10 km in length and 3 km across, area 25 km². The surrounding reefs, which enclose a narrow lagoon, are completely submerged at high tide. Near the centre of the lagoon is the only permanent land of the reef – Heralds-Beacon Islet. The island is a small cay measuring 600 m by 120 m, area 57,000 m², only rising a few meters above the high water mark.Frederick Reefs: The reefs form a semi-enclosed lagoon, known as Anchorage Sound, with an opening on the North side. The complex measures about 10 by 4 km, with an area of 30 km². On the southern side of the reef lies Observatory Cay, the only permanently dry land, although there are a few of others cays that can be awash at high tide.Kenn Reefs, submerged atoll of about 15 by 8 km, area 40 km², islet Observatory Cay in the Southeast, 2 m highSaumarez Reefs, southernmost reefs to be located on the Coral Sea Shelf; three main reefs and numerous smaller reefs that form a large crescent-shaped formation open to the northwest, about 27 by 14 km, area less than 300 km². There are two sand cays: North East Cay and South West Cay.Wreck Reefs: atoll 25 by 5 km, area 75 km², open on the North. Islets found on the reefs include Bird Islet, West Islet and Porpoise Cay.Cato Reef: Cato bank 21 by 13 km, area 200 km² of depths less than 17 m; Cato Reef encircles an area of 3.3 by 1.8 km, area 5 km² including lagoon; Cato Island, in the West of the lagoon, 650 by 300 m, area 1.5 km², 6 m high. Close to the Southeast corner of Cato bank is Hutchison Rock, with 1 m depth over it.Extreme SouthElizabeth and Middleton Reefs, together with reefs around Lord Howe Island (New South Wales) 150 km to the south, are regarded as the southernmost coral reefs in the world. Their location, where tropical and temperate ocean currents meet, contributes to an unusually diverse assemblage of marine species. These mostly submerged atolls which dry only during low tide were added to the territory only in 1989. They are located on the Lord Howe Rise in the Tasman Sea which joins the Coral Sea in the South. Already on 23 December 1987, they were protected as Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs Marine National Nature Reserve, which has an area of 1880 km².Middleton Reef, atoll about 8.9 by 6.3 km, area 37 km² including lagoon, one islet: Elizabeth island (Elizabeth cay), no vegetation, 600 meters by 400 meters (area 0.2 km²), highest point close to the Northern end 1.5 meters. At low tides much of the reef flat is exposed.Elizabeth Reef, atoll about 8.2 by 5.5 km, area 51 km² including lagoon, one islet: The Sound, 100 by 70 meters (area 5,000 m²), highest point 0.8 meters. At low tides much of the reef flat is exposed.The territory is a possession of Australia, administered from Canberra by the Australian Department of the Environment, which has control over the activities of visitors. Defence is the responsibility of Australia, and the territory is visited regularly by the Royal Australian Navy. Australia maintains automatic weather stations on many of the isles and reefs, and claims a 200 nautical mile (370 km) exclusive fishing zone. There is no economic activity, and only a staff of three or four people to run the meteorological station on Willis Island (South Islet), established in 1921. However, a group of gay activists have settled on Cato Island and claimed the islands as a sovereign gay territory!

Top Sites
  • MR Coral Sea Commonwealth

  • NNR Lihou Reef

    Lihou Reef National Nature Reserve is a former marine protected area covering an area of 8440 km2in the Australian Coral Sea Islands Territory that was incorporated into the new Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve in December 2012.

Abbreviations Key

  • Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve

    WebpageSatellite View
    The Coral Sea marine region is a remote ocean ecosystem recognised for its unique physical, ecological and heritage values. The environmental significance of the Coral Sea lies in its diverse array of coral reefs, sandy cays, deep sea plains and canyons. The Coral Sea islands and associated reefs support critical nesting sites for the green turtle and a range of seabird species such as noddies, terns, boobies, frigatebirds and tropic birds.
Other Links
  • Coringa, Herald & Magdelaine Cays

    Faintly imaged here are the three groups of cays that make up the 8,860 km

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