10°S 143°E Central Strait Islands – Queensland by Degrees
Degree Confluence 10°S 143°E (Google Earth Image)
Location: This confluence point is located at sea close to the junction of the Tancred Passage and Great North East Channel in the eastern waters of Torres Strait. It is 2.2 km west of Dove (Uttu) Islet and 15.7 km east of Sassie Island. Coconut (Poruma) Island is the nearest populated place and is about 9 km to the south-east. It is within the Torres Strait Island Regional Council. The administrative centre for the council is Thursday Island 106 km south-east of the point. The site has not been visited.
The Landscape: At sea.
Point information and photos: Ken Granger and Google Earth, 2008.
WITHIN THE DEGREE SQUARE
The Country: The augmented degree square extends from the international border with Papua New Guinea just north of Saibai Island to just south of Au-Masig Reef. It contains the islands of the central Torres Strait.
Of the populated islands, the largest is Saibai, a low-lying island of sediments from the rivers of PNG. Its coastline is lined by mangroves and it is only a few metres above sea level. Dauan (Cornwallis) Island, which is closest to Saibai, by contrast is a high continental island with an elevation of 296 m ASL. Yam (Iama) Island is also a continental island that is surrounded by fringing reef. It has a maximum elevation of 66 m ASL. It retains a significant area of forest. Coconut Island is a narrow and low-lying coral cay surrounded by reef and fringing mangrove. Warraber (Sue) Island further south is also a coral cay surrounded by a wide reef platform. The most easterly of this group is Masig (Yorke) Island, another coral cay.
Of the uninhabited islands, Gabba, to the south, is also a small continental island with an elevation of 119 m ASL. It is composed largely of granite. Nearby Zagai Island, by contrast is an island of sediment with a maximum elevation of only 2 m ASL. The larger Sassie Island, to the south, is also a low-lying accumulation of sediment and has an elevation of 8 m ASL. It is surrounded by reefs and sand banks.
The Warrior Reefs is a significant reef system extending over 80 km from north to south and marking the western edge of the Great North East Channel through the Strait.
The Climate: The climate of the area is tropical maritime with a markedly dry winter. The nearest climate station with good records is Horn Island, about 70 km south-east of the confluence point.
Horn Island (site 027058) 1995-2008 (elevation 4 m ASL)
The highest temperature ever recorded on Horn Island in the 13 years or record was 37.9°C in December 2002 while the lowest temperature was 15.3°C in August 2004. Rainfalls also vary greatly. The highest total of 2683.8 mm was recorded in 2000 and the lowest total of 1244.2 mm in 2002.
Extremes of Nature: The area is subject to cyclones. The cyclone database maintained by the Bureau of Meteorology shows that 16 cyclones have tracked within 200 km of the confluence point between 1906-7 and 2006-7. Amongst these storms were: an unnamed storm in December 1920, another unnamed storm in March 1923, unnamed TC in January 1964, an unnamed storm in January 1965, TC Faith in April 1972, TC Stan in April 1979, TC Audrey in January 1984, TC Nathan in March 1998, TC Fay in March 2004, TC Ingrid in March 2005 and TC Pierre in May 2007.
These storms bring potentially destructive winds and high seas. Some have caused erosion to the low-lying islands such as Saibai and fears have been expressed about the viability of communities on those islands in the face of coastal subsidence, climate change-induced sea level rise and possible increase in storm frequency and intensity.
The area averages between 30 and 40 thunder days each year. Severe thunderstorms can also bring destructive winds and produce high seas. They can come up very quickly posing a serious threat to people travelling through the area in small boats.
The National Earthquake Database maintained by Geoscience Australia contains a record of one earthquake event within the degree square. This was a ML 4.0 event on 9 December 1924 with its epicentre about 50 km south-east of the confluence point. No damage was recorded.
The Indigenous Story: Torres Strait Islanders are of Melanesian ethnicity with close links to the indigenous people of PNG rather than the Aboriginal people of the Australian mainland. Two language groups exist within the degree square. In the north are the Kalaw Kawaw Ya people of Saibai and in the south the Murulag people of the Torres Strait. There is archaeological evidence that these Melanesian people have occupied the islands for at least 2500 years, and it is likely that they have been living there for much longer than that.
The islanders are sea faring people and their material culture is akin to that of the Papuan people immediately to their north, for example they use bow and arrow, a technology not found among Aboriginal groups. They had established a fearsome reputation as head hunters by the time the first Europeans attempted to settle the area.
The Saibai Island is now held under native title.
MORE INFORMATION NEEDED
European Exploration and Settlement: The islanders of the Central Torres Strait had certainly had contact with outside peoples before the first Europeans ventured through the area. Fishermen from the Macassar area of Indonesia made annual visits to the area collecting trepang and trochus shell since the late 17th Century.
The first Europeans to sight the area were with the Spaniard Luis de Torres in 1606, when they sailed through the strait that now carries their leader's name. It took de Torres' crew over two months to thread their way through the reefs and shoals from east to west before reaching open water and turning for the Philippines. It was not until 1770 that the British first ventured into the area. Cook made a transit of the strait passing to the south of this degree square. Bligh and his two whale boats passed through the area in their epic voyage following the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. Bligh named Tudu Islet ‘Warrior Island' and the adjacent reef system following an encounter with hostile Islanders. The first detailed survey of the Strait was undertaken by Flinders in the Investigator in 1802.
With the passages through the ‘sieve for ships', as the waters of the Strait became known, charted shipping between Sydney and Brisbane and Asian ports began to increase and with that trade, so did the increase in the number of shipwrecks. Few ships stopped in the Torres Strait until the start of the pearling trade in the around 1869.
Queensland annexed the islands of Torres Strait within 60 miles (96.6 km) of Cape York by Letters Patent in1872 and in 1879 the remaining island in Torres Strait were annexed.
The London Missionary Society established a station on Yam Island in the 1870s and it became the centre of a permanent village. The pearling industry was established in 1869 when Tudu islanders showed a Pacific Islander who was working for William Banner rich shell beds on Warrior Reef.
During WW II many of the men of these islands enlisted in the Torres Strait Light Infantry, providing a garrison force to defend the Islands and to provide a reconnaissance and surveillance force in the remote area.
Shortly after WW II severe weather and high tides caused major damage on Saibai Island, including destruction of most of the subsistence gardens and contaminated many of the shallow wells. A small group of former Torres Strait Light Infantry members who had visited Cape York convinced the elder, Bamaga Ginau, to move their people to the mainland where there was plentiful fertile land and good water. The first families left Saibai in 1947 to a temporary settlement at Muttee Heads (near present-day New Mapoon on Cape York) before being relocated to the settlement they named for their leader Bamaga.
MORE INFORMATION NEEDED
The total population of the degree square at the 2011 national Census was 315, the great majority of whom are Torres Strait islanders. The population had been steadily growing up until the 2006 census but, on the figures, would seem to have declined rapidly between then and 2011. This reduction appears to be due to changes to census boundaries rather than an actual decline. For example, both Saibai and Dauan Islands are not included in the 2011 numbers. The only island for which a 2011 population is given is Yam Island.
The low-lying nature of Saibai Island continues to be a concern to its residents. High seas from tropical cyclones and the prospect of climate change sea level rise (and land subsidence) may see the remaining Islanders join their kin at Bamaga.
Sources: Notes on the history of the area were based on a brief history on the Torres Strait Regional Authority web site www.tsra.gov.au. The material on the migration from Saibai to Bamaga is taken from the book prepared by the Bamaga Island Council in 2000 with the title The migration from Saibai to Bamaga on the Cape York Peninsula.
Edited by: Hayley Freemantle
Compilers: Ken Granger 2008