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Australian islands

World heritage listed Fraser Island

World Heritage-listed Fraser Island. Image courtesy of Geoscience Australia.

The continent of Australia is referred to as an island because it is surrounded by ocean. However, Australia is actually made up of more than 8,000 islands, including the island state of Tasmania.

As an island, Australia is a natural quarantine zone. This means we are able to keep out many of the pests and diseases, such as rabies and papaya fly, that ravage other parts of the world. It also means we have some of the most unique animals and plants in the world. Many of our islands feature animals and wildlife that are unique to the islands due to their isolation from threats.

Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island is located far off the east coast of Australia. It is 1610 kilometres ENE of Sydney and 1456 km ESE of Brisbane. The Island is a volcanic outcrop 8km long and 5km wide.

Norfolk Island is the site of one of the earliest European settlements in the Southwest Pacific. In March 1788, just after the colony of New South Wales was established, Lieutenant Philip Gidley King and 22 settlers (including nine male and six female convicts) landed at what is now Kingston, Norfolk Island. In 1806, the government of the time decided the island was too difficult and costly to maintain. The inhabitants were transferred to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and all buildings were destroyed to discourage unauthorised settlers.

A second settlement was established in 1825. This time the island was to be a penal colony for the worst convicts from New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. It was officially described as 'a place of the extremist punishment, short of death'. Conditions were harsh and many convicts died from disease, murder and failed escape attempts. Convict labour was used to construct the main buildings on the island, which remain standing to this day. In 1855, the island was abandoned as a penal colony and convicts transferred (again) to Van Diemen's Land.

The third settlement was the following year. One hundred and ninety-four men, women and children made the 3,700 mile, five week journey from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island. Almost all of them were descendants of the Bounty mutineers, the British naval officers involved in the1789 mutiny against Captain William Bligh.

Today, Norfolk Island is home to 1,800 permanent residents. Thirty-five per cent are descendants of the Bounty mutineers. Due to the number of shared surnames, many of the descendents are listed in the local telephone book by their nicknames for identification purposes - Lettuce Leaf, Spuddy, Bubby, Diddles and Loppy to name just a few.

Torres Strait Islands

A Torres Strait dancer

A Thursday Island Torres Strait dancer.
Image courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

The Torres Strait separates the land masses of Australia and New Guinea. Torres Strait Islanders are of the Melanesian grouping of people and are traditionally mariners. They have a long history of trade with both Aboriginal and New Guinean people.

The islands are named after the Spaniard Luiz Vez de Torres who sailed through in 1606. After Australia was colonised by England, the Torres Strait became a sea route for ships travelling between Australia and Britain. This enabled the islanders to extend their trade partners, but also meant European rule, culture and religion were imposed.

In the 1860s, the discovery of pearl shell and trepang (sea cucumber), a delicacy appreciated by the Chinese, brought people from all over the region to the Torres Strait. By 1877, 16 pearling firms were operating on Thursday Island. The colony of Queensland recognised the value of this resource, and annexed the islands in 1879.

The influx of settlers severely restricted the ability of the islanders to continue their traditional lives and travels. It wasn't until 1936 that islanders took charge of local government. In 1990 they were officially recognised as a distinct people.

In June 1992, the High Court of Australia overturned the previous concept of terra nullius which stated that, in legal terms, Australia was empty of inhabitants when it was first settled by Europeans. On this day the High Court recognised the native title rights of Eddie Mabo over his traditional land on Murray Island (Mer). Several other communities (Saibai Islanders and Mualgal people from Moa Island) have gained native title rights over their islands since the Mabo decision.

The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) was established in 1994 to allow Torres Strait islanders to manage their own affairs according to their own ailan kastom (island custom).

Macquarie Island

Macquarie Island

Macquarie Island. Image courtesy of Geoscience Australia.

Macquarie Island lies 1,500 kilometres south-east of Tasmania in the Southern Ocean. The island is the exposed crest of the enormous Macquarie Ridge and is the only place on earth where rocks from the earth's mantle (6 kilometres below the ocean floor) are being actively exposed above sea level.

In 1996, the Australian government nominated Macquarie Island for World Heritage listing based on its unique geological features. The island was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1997.

For more than 50 years, the northern part of the island has been the base for a research and Antarctic Support Station. Built in 1948, the station hosts more than 40 people over the summer and about 20 people during winter.

Queensland Islands

Some of Australia's best-known islands are in Queensland. With the Great Barrier Reef following the coast from north to south, these tropical islands comprise the holiday playground of Australia.

Just an hour's drive from the Queensland capital, Brisbane, is Bribie Island. Linked to the mainland by a bridge, the sandy beaches and national parks of Bribie have become a family holiday destination.

Fraser Island, which is more than 1,600 square kilometres in size, is the world's largest sand island. In December 1992, Fraser Island attained World Heritage listing in recognition of its amazing geography. With complex sand dune systems, a rainforest on sand and crystal clear freshwater lakes, the island is a haven for wildlife and flora. And because of its geographical isolation, the island contains the purest strain of dingo in Australia. Fraser Island was also placed on the National Heritage List in 2007.

The holiday islands Queensland is best known for are further north. The Whitsundays, a group of more than 70 islands midway along the Queensland coast, are a favourite holiday destination for Australians and international visitors. Other popular islands include Great Keppel Island, Lizard Island and Magnetic Island.

West Australian islands

Quokkas on Rottnest Island

Quokkas at Rottnest Island. Image courtesy of The Rottnest Island Authority.

Like Queensland, the West Australian coast boasts hundreds of islands and island groups.

To the south is a group of more than 100 islands, including Woody Island, which are home to fur seals, penguins and many water birds. These lie within the Archipelago of the Recherche, commonly known as the Esperance Bay of Isles.

Off the central west coast are the more than 100 tiny islands that make up the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. The most significant feature of these islands is the Acropora coral which surrounds the islands and which has been the cause of many shipwrecks, including the Batavia (1629) and Zeewijk (1727).

Further north are the Montebello Islands. Named by the French explorer Baudin, this island group is comprised of more than 100 limestone islands of varying sizes and is very popular for game fishing.

The most famous of all West Australian islands, Rottnest Island, can be found just off the coast from the capital city, Perth. Rottnest Island was discovered in 1696 by Willem de Vlamingh, a Dutch explorer, who named the island Rat's Nest due to the many large rats that he believed inhabited the island. These 'rats' are actually quokkas (PDF 82 KB) and are one of the main attractions of the island.

Rottnest Island was originally used by settlers as a prison and during World War II it was a large military stronghold. Today, the island is both a tourist destination and a weekend escape for locals. Cars are banned from the island (with a few exceptions) and most people use bikes.

Cocos Islands

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are located 2,800 kilometres north-west of Perth in the Indian Ocean. The group, which consists of 27 coral islands, became an Australian Territory in 1955. The first permanent settlement on the islands was in 1826, with a second settlement the following year. This second settlement was led by Captain Clunies-Ross, who was keen to use the island's coconut supplies to produce coconut husks and oil. In 1886, Queen Victoria granted all land on the islands to George Clunies-Ross (the third descendant of Captain Clunies-Ross) and his heirs for eternity.

The islands served as a communications and transport link during both World Wars. They were attacked by the German cruiser Emden in World War I and the Japanese during World War II. In 1978 the Australian government purchased from Mr John Cecil Clunies-Ross the remainder of his property on the islands with the exception of his house on Home Island (which was purchased by the government in 1993).

Useful links

Island geography, weather and geology

Australian islands

Listen, look and play

  • Saibai Island game. Use traditional fishing practices to catch fish, turtles and dugong from your Saibai Island canoe in preparation for a traditional Torres Strait Islander feast.

Last updated: 20 April 2016
Creators: Kathryn Wells, et al.

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