Torres Strait

The Torres Strait (/ˈtɒrɪs/) is a strait which lies between Australia and the Melanesian island of New Guinea. It is approximately 150 km (93 mi) wide at its narrowest extent. To the south is Cape York Peninsula, the northernmost extremity of the Australian mainland. To the north is the Western Province of Papua New Guinea. It is named after navigator Luís Vaz de Torres, who passed through the Strait in 1606.

Torres Strait
Torres Strait and Islands
LocationIndian OceanPacific Ocean
Coordinates9°50′S 142°30′E
Basin countriesAustralia
Papua New Guinea


The strait links the Coral Sea to the east with the Arafura Sea and Gulf of Carpentaria in the west. Although it is an important international sea lane, it is very shallow (7 to 15 m water depth),[1] and the maze of reefs and islands can make it hazardous to navigate. In the south the Endeavour Strait is located between Prince of Wales Island (Muralug) and the mainland. Shipping enters Torres Strait via the Adolphus Channel which joins to the Great Barrier Reef lagoon to the southeast. Strong tidal currents occur in the narrow channels between islands and reefs, and large submarine sand dunes migrate across the seafloor.[2] Some 580 coral reefs, including the Warrior Reefs and Eastern Patch Reefs, cover a total area of 2,400 km2 (930 sq mi) in the region, as well as some of the most extensive seagrass beds in the world.[3]

Several clusters of islands lie in the Strait, collectively called the Torres Strait Islands. There are at least 274 of these islands, of which 17 have present-day permanent settlements.

Over 6,800 Torres Strait Islanders live on the Islands and 42,000 live on the mainland.

These islands have a variety of topographies, ecosystems and formation history. Several of those closest to the New Guinea coastline are low-lying, formed by alluvial sedimentary deposits borne by the outflow of the local rivers into the sea.[4] Many of the western islands are hilly and steep, formed mainly of granite, and are peaks of the northernmost extension of the Great Dividing Range now turned into islands when sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age. The central islands are predominantly coral cays, and those of the east are of volcanic origins. The islands are considered Australian territory and are administered from Thursday Island. There are several major policy and institutional frameworks in the Torres Strait region that support the sustainable use and management of marine resources while also protecting habitats, biodiversity and the traditional islander way of life. Most important of these is the Torres Strait Treaty entered into by Australia and Papua New Guinea in February 1985. The Treaty defines sovereignty and maritime boundaries in the area between the two countries. It guides decision makers on protecting the way of life and livelihood of traditional inhabitants, on managing the protection of habitats, and on sharing the commercial and traditional fisheries resources. The Treaty established a Torres Strait Protected Zone within which both nations manage access to fisheries resources. Each country exercises sovereign jurisdiction for resources on either side of the agreed jurisdiction lines.

The islands' indigenous inhabitants are the Torres Strait Islanders, who are distinct from both the Papuans of adjoining New Guinea and from Aboriginal groups on the nearby Australian mainland but related to both.[5] The various Torres Strait Islander communities have a unique culture and long-standing history with the islands and nearby coastlines. Their maritime-based trade and interactions with the Papuans to the north and the Australian Aboriginal communities have maintained a steady cultural diffusion among the three societal groups, dating back thousands of years at least.

Two indigenous languages are spoken on the Torres Strait Islands: Kala Lagaw Ya/Kalaw Kawaw Ya/Kawalgau Ya/Muwalgau Ya/Kulkalgau Ya, and Miriam Mir, as well as Brokan [Broken], otherwise called Torres Strait Creole. In the 2001 Australian national census, the population of the islands was recorded as 8,089, though many more live outside of Torres Strait in Australia.

Environmental issues facing the region include the risk of mining waste from the Fly River in southern Papua New Guinea, the impacts of global climate change and the sustainable management of natural resources.[6]


The islands of the Torres Strait have been inhabited for at least 2,500 years and possibly much longer.[7]

The first recorded European navigation of the strait was by Luís Vaz de Torres, a pilot who was second-in-command on the Spanish expedition led by navigator Pedro Fernandes de Queirós who sailed from Peru to the South Pacific in 1605. After Queirós's ship returned to Mexico, Torres resumed the intended voyage to Manila via the Maluku Islands. He sailed along the south coast of New Guinea, and may also have sighted the northernmost extremity of the Australian mainland, however no specific records exist that indicate he did so.[8]

In 1769 the Scottish geographer Alexander Dalrymple, whilst translating some Spanish documents captured in the Philippines in 1762, had found Luís Vaz de Torres' testimony proving a passage south of New Guinea now known as Torres Strait. This discovery led Dalrymple to publish the Historical Collection of the Several Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean in 1770–1771, which aroused widespread interest in his claim of the existence of an unknown continent. It was Dalrymple who named the strait after Torres. Dalrymple was bitterly disappointed that it was James Cook and not he who was appointed commander of the expedition that eventually led in 1770 to the British encounter and charting of the eastern coastline of Australia.

In 1770 Lieutenant James Cook rounded Cape York, turned south-west and landed on Possession Island. From the top of a hill, he signalled down to the ship that he could see a navigable passage through the dangerous Strait. Later in Batavia, where he learnt that the French had preceded him across the Pacific, Cook re-wrote this signalling drill as a possession ceremony,[9] saying he had claimed Australia's east coast for the British Crown.[10]

In 1823 Captain John Lihou, Master of the 550-ton merchant ship Zenobia of Calcutta, was on passage from Manila to South America and chose a route through Torres Strait. Remarkably, this would become the first time for a ship to be navigated through the Torres Strait from west to east. According to the Sydney Gazette of April 1823: 'This essay of nautical skill was accomplished after the loss of four anchors and the rudder.' It was also the first occasion a ship was navigated through the Coral Sea from Torres Strait, south-eastward to the southward of New Caledonia. Lihou saw Sir James Saumarez' Shoal (now Saumarez Reefs) on 27 February and named the reef system after Vice-Admiral James Saumarez. On this same trip, Lihou discovered the Lihou Reef and Cays and Port Lihou (originally named Port Yarborough, on the southern shore of Prince of Wales Island). Please note that Lihou's ship should not be confused with the 385-ton HMS Zenobia, built at Kings Lynn in 1807.

The London Missionary Society arrived on Erub (Darnley Island) in 1871. Although some of the Torres Strait islands lie just off the coast of New Guinea, they were annexed in 1879 by Queensland, then a British colony. There was an important pearling industry from the 1860s until about 1970 when it collapsed in the face of competition from the plastics industry. Pearl-shelling was responsible for the arrival of experienced divers from many countries, notably Japan.[11]

In 1978 an agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea determined the maritime border in the Torres Strait.[12]

Torres Strait is mentioned in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as a dangerous strait where the submarine, the Nautilus, is briefly stranded.

The people of the Torres Strait have a unique indigenous culture which has drawn the interest of a range of anthropological, historical, archaeological and folklorist researchers (both professional and amateur). This includes an expedition from Cambridge University led by the early ethnographer Alfred Haddon in 1898 and the more contemporary regional work of Australian anthropologist Jeremy Beckett. Accounts of local Indigenous narrative traditions can be found in the work of Nonie Sharp and Margaret Lawrie.

Due to proximity to the Papua New Guinea mainland, the northern Torres Strait islands experience occasional asylum seeker arrivals from across the Strait. A total of ten asylum seekers from Papua New Guinea were detected in each of 2012 and 2013.[13]

In 2016 the Australian Federal Police were tipped off by residents of Prince of Wales Island that men from Sydney were attempting to buy a boat to reach Papua New Guinea in order to leave Australia without a passport.[14]

Shipping routes

The two routes through the Strait are:

  • Endeavour Strait (purple line on chart) – for small vessels.
  • Prince of Wales Channel: Larger ships transiting Torres Strait enter the Prince of Wales Channel from the West just north of Booby Island by way of the Gannet or Varzin Passages. The minimum depths for deep draught shipping in the Great Barrier Reef pilotage area are found here (10.3m – Nov 2011). Shipping with a 12.2m static draught or less are permitted to transit the area.[15]
    • Channels to the East of Prince of Wales Channel
      • Great North East Channel: East of Prince of Wales Channel at Wednesday Island the Route becomes The Great North East Channel (green line on chart). The Great North East Channel (GNEC) links the Prince of Wales Channel to the northernmost entrance to the Great Barrier Reef, 120 NM away at Bligh Entrance. The GNEC route runs North or South of Alert Patches and East to under Twin Island then Northeast to Dalrymple Island (the end of Pilotage requirement) then on to Bramble Quay, Bligh Entrance and the open sea. This passage routes shipping to the Coral Sea, the Pacific Ocean and the outside of the Great Barrier Reef. Another channel (brown line on chart) runs down towards Cape York.[16]
      • Inner Route Pilotage Area: The Inner Route Pilotage Area runs from near Cape York to near Cairns. This channel, named the 'Inner Route' runs between the Australian mainland and the Great Barrier Reef [17]

See also


  1. Harris, P.T., 1988. Sediments, bedforms and bedload transport pathways on the continental shelf adjacent to Torres Strait, Australia - Papua New Guinea. Continental Shelf Research 8, 979-1003
  2. Hemer, M.A., Harris, P.T., Coleman, R., Hunter, J., 2004. Sediment mobility due to currents and waves in the Torres Strait - Gulf of Papua region. Continental Shelf Research 24, 2297-2316
  3. Coles, R.G., McKenzie, L.J. and Campbell, S.J. (2003). The seagrasses of eastern Australia In: Green EP; Short FT; and Spalding MD. (eds) The World Atlas of Seagrasses
  4. Harris, P.T., 1995. Muddy waters: the physical sedimentology of Torres Strait, in: Bellwood, O., Choat, H., Saxena, N. (Eds.), Recent Advances in Marine Science and Technology '94. James Cook University of North Queensland, Townsville, Qld., pp. 149-160
  5. David, B., McNiven, I. Manas, L., Manas, J., 2004. Goba of Mua: archaeology working with oral tradition. Antiquity 299 158-172
  6. Harris, P.T., Butler, A.J., Coles, R.G., 2008. Marine resources, biophysical processes, and environmental management of a tropical shelf seaway: Torres Strait, Australia – Introduction to the Special Issue. Continental Shelf Research 28, 2113-2116
  7. John Burton. "History of Torres Strait to 1879 – a regional view". Torres Strait Regional Authority. Archived from the original on 15 May 2009. Retrieved 13 April 2008.
  8. Brett Hilder (1980) The Voyage of Torres. University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Queensland. ISBN 0-7022-1275-X
  9. Beaglehole, J.C. (1955). The journasls of Captain James Cook, Vol. I. Cambridge: Hakluyt Society. pp. 387–388. ISBN 0851157440.
  10. Cameron-Ash, M. (2018). Lying for the Admiralty: Captain Cook's Endeavour Voyage. Sydney: Rosenberg. pp. 180–189, 190–197. ISBN 9780648043966.
  11. Ganter, Regina. (1994). The Pearl-Shellers of Torres Strait: Resource Use, Development and Decline, 1860s–1960s. Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0-522-84547-9.
  12. for a detailed map see "Australia's Maritime Zones in the Torres Strait" (PDF). Australian Government – Geoscience Australia. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 October 2014. Retrieved 13 April 2008.,
    for the agreement see "Treaty between Australia and the Independent State of Papua New Guinea concerning sovereignty and maritime boundaries in the area between the two countries, including the area known as Torres Strait, and related matters, 18 December 1978" (PDF). United Nations. Retrieved 13 April 2008.
  13. Wordsworth, Matt (13 August 2013). "Torres Strait looms as a new route for asylum seekers escaping PNG". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  14. "AFP probes men seeking boat in Torres Strait". 15 June 2016 via Brisbane Times.
  15. AMSA-QCPP P12
  16. AMSA-QCPP P12 & Planning chartlets P65
  17. AMSA-QCPP Planning Chartlets P31


  • Singe, John. (2003). My Island Home: A Torres Strait Memoir. University of Queensland Press. ISBN 0-7022-3305-6.
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