14°S 144°E Princess Charlotte Bay – Queensland by Degrees

14°S 144°E Princess Charlotte Bay – Queensland by Degrees


Degree Confluence 14°S 144°E (Google Earth Image)

Location: The site is located on the edge of Grub Reef at the northern entrance to Princess Charlotte Bay, about 34 km East of Port Campbell. Grub Reef (Reef 14 003) lies within the Far Northern Management Area of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Marine National Park Zone 13-1019). It lies within Cook Shire. The site was not visited.

The Landscape: The site is on the waters of Princess Charlotte Bay. The immediate area has numerous reefs, separated by narrow channels of deep water. Some of the reefs have small sand cays.

Grub Reef and the surrounding waters have an abundant marine flora and fauna including corals, sponges, fish, crocodiles, turtles and molluscs.

Point information and photos: Ken Granger and Google Earth, 2008.

The Country: A large proportion of the extended degree square is covered by the waters of the Coral Sea, much of it inside the Great Barrier Reef. The marine environment is very complex and includes numerous coral reefs, cays and shallow sea grass beds.

The land area of the degree square contains the estuaries of the Kennedy, Normanby and Stewart Rivers as well as the islands of the Flinders Group and the higher country of Cape Melville. The oldest rocks in the area are the Silurian-Devonian period sandstones (434 to 354 million years) that form Barrow Point and the Devonian period granites (410 to 354 million years) that form Round Mountain just south of Campbell Point. The remainder of the area is of much more recent origin and made up of a mixture of sediments. Cape Melville itself is made up of granite boulders to form an extremely complex and rugged landscape.

Cape Melville (J & M Nowill photo)

Cape Melville from the sea (Ken Granger photo)

Note: A 'quarter' square has been added to the SE corner of the degree square so as to more conveniently include the Cape Melville and Barrow Point area.
Vegetation ranges from fringing mangroves along the coast and estuaries to grassland studded with termite mounds to monsoon forest patches and eucalypt dominated open forest.

Wildlife in the area includes estuarine crocodiles, snakes (including taipan and king brown snakes), lizards and turtles. Bird life is prolific - over half of Australia's bird species have been recorded in this area including the endangered golden shouldered parrot that nests in termite mounds.

The Climate: The general area has a tropical savannah climate with a markedly dry winter and wet summer. The closest climate station is Musgrave (the former telegraph station) about 100 km south-west of the confluence point. The main climatic averages are given in the table.

Musgrave (site 0028007) 1887 - 2008 (elevation 84 m ASL)















Mean max














Mean min














Mean rain















There is significant variability in the climate. The highest maximum on record was 41.8°C in December 1992 while the lowest minimum recorded was 2.4°C in July 1996. Rainfall also varies greatly. The highest annual rainfall on record was 2031.1 mm in 1913 and the lowest annual rainfall was 400.5 mm in 1902.

Extremes of Nature: The area is subject to frequent and often very severe cyclones. The cyclone database maintained by the Bureau of Meteorology shows 53 cyclone tracks passing within 200 km of the confluence point between 1906-7 and 2006-7. The points of origin of these cyclones are roughly evenly divided between the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Coral Sea.

Cyclone tracks that have passed within 200 km of the confluence point (BoM web site)

In March 1899 the country's first ever recorded Category 5 tropical cyclone, wrecked the pearling fleet sheltered in Princess Charlotte and Bathurst Bays. This storm was named Mahina by Clement Wragge, the colony's meteorologist.

On Saturday 4 March 1899 the pearling fleet of eight schooners attended by about 80 luggers was anchored in various locations in the western part of Princess Charlotte Bay and in Bathurst Bay. The Channel Rock Lightship was also moored near Pipon Island. The pearling fleet had come together in the area to take on supplies from their supporting schooners, take on fresh water and to transfer pearl shell.

Assumed track of Mahina

According to eye witness accounts, at 7.00 pm on 4 March the winds were moderate from the south-west, however, they steadily increased in strength and by 11.00 pm they were blowing with hurricane force from the south-west. The eye of the cyclone probably crossed the coast through Bathurst Bay around 4.30 am on the 5th and was preceded along the coast of Cape Melville by a very large storm tide. The schooner Crest of the Wave recorded a barometric pressure of '27 inches' (914 hpa) at 4.30 am, the lowest pressure ever recorded on the Queensland coast.

The fleet was devastated. Five schooners were totally lost; two were wrecked but refloated and one was dismasted. In all 54 luggers were totally lost and 12 were wrecked but refloated. The light ship was also lost. At least 307 crew members perished. A number of local Aboriginal people were also drowned when they attempted to rescue shipwrecked men. An 18 year old Darnley Island woman named Mohara (also variously spelt Muara, Moora, Mokara or Moira) was on board one of the lugger with her two married sisters. When their boat was wrecked she assisted her two sisters to reach land and undoubtedly saved their lives. The then Queensland Government Resident on Thursday Island, John Douglas, wrote to the Home Secretary commending Mohara's bravery and as a result the Queensland Government struck a special silver medal that was presented to her by John Douglas on Darnley Island on 17 November 1899. The inscription on the medal reads:


"Presented to Mohara by the Government of Queensland for bravery on the night of 4th and 5th March 1899"

The story of Mohara's bravery has been embellished in various accounts. For example, that she saved two sailors; that she was on her honeymoon and that she was presented the Royal Humane Society's silver medal. Research undertaken by Torres Strait historian Jim McJannett has corrected the account as recounted above. He has also reported that Mohara passed away on board a pearling lugger in December 1929 and was subsequently buried on Thursday Island.

The total death toll from TC Mahina was probably close to 400.

The impact on land was also massive. Trees were uprooted, those that stood were stripped of their leaves or had branches torn off. It took several years for the vegetation to recover, a fact that produced severe famine and great hardship amongst the local Aboriginal community.

The storm tide that was produced by Mahina has been reported to have reached a height of 15 m at its highest on Flinders Island and 13 m south of Cape Barrow - amongst the highest ever recorded anywhere. Those figures are based on reports of 'porpoises and sharks' being found at the top of a 15 m cliff on Flinders Island and the eye witness report of Constable John Kenny who was camped on a sand ridge 'fully 40 ft [12.2 m] above sea level and about half a mile [800 m] from the beach' near Barrow Point. His camp was destroyed by the winds, several of his horses were killed by falling branches and 'an immense tidal wave swept in shore, and reached waist deep on the ridge with the camp on it, completing the misery of the constable and his troopers, also spoiling Kenny's watch'. The wave 'stretched between two and three miles [3 to 5 km] inland'.

Research undertaken in the past few years has brought these reports into question. Sophisticated modelling based on the known properties of Mahina have only been able to create a storm surge height of around 3 m. Field investigations in 2002 could only find the type of debris likely to have been thrown up on-shore by the storm tide to heights up to 5 m above the highest tide level. To have achieved the height reported by Constable Kenny, local topography and considerable wave set up and wave run up would have been needed to add to the surge height.

This still remains one of the more intriguing conundrums of Queensland's considerable history of cyclone disasters.

Another intriguing claim associated with Mahina is that its destructive force was caused by two cyclones (one from the Gulf, the other from the Coral Sea) combining the destructive forces over Princess Charlotte Bay. The western 'cyclone' has also been given the name Nachon. This story has emerged several times, even in recent years, It seems to have its origin in the account known as the 'Outridge Booklet' published by the family of two men of that name who perished in the cyclone. The 'Outridge Booklet' contains a sketch map that is claimed to be based on the work of Clement Wragge. Analysis of the available records by modern meteorologists discounts the suggestion completely.


In addition to cyclones, the area is subject to the impact of thunderstorms. The area averages between 30 and 40 thunder days a year. These storms can bring intense rainfall that may lead to local flash flooding as well as destructive winds. Lightning strikes can spark bushfires if there is sufficient fuel to permit it to spread.

The National Earthquake database maintained by Geoscience Australia contains a record of a ML 4.4 event on 16 February 1962 with its epicentre located at the confluence point. No damage was reported from this earthquake.

The Indigenous Story: The Aboriginal groups that occupy the land surrounding Princess Charlotte Bay, Cape Melville and the Flinders Islands Group include (from north to south east) the Kuuku-yani, Umbindhama, Lamalama and Mutumui linguistic - tribal groups.

Aboriginal people collected valuable food, medicine and material resources from many of the lagoons and waterholes along the Lakefield and Normanby Rivers and from the coastal waters. There are internationally significant Aboriginal rock art sites, middens and other occupation sites in the Flinders Group.

Conflict with the early white explorers, miners and settlers occasionally led to killings on both sides.

In 1927 the entomologist and ethnographer Norman Tindale (then Director of the South Australian Museum) visited the Princess Charlotte Bay area where he filmed and recorded the life of the Aboriginal people and their material culture. He made a collection of over 600 artefacts that remain in the collection of the South Australian Museum. Of particular interest were the double-outrigger canoes used by the people of the area for fishing, trading and travel.

European Exploration and Settlement: Princess Charlotte Bay and Cape Melville were named by Lt Charles Jeffries (HMS Kangaroo) in 1815. Edmund Kennedy passed close to the shores of Princess Charlotte Bay on his ill-fated exploration of Cape York in 1848. The waters of the Bay attracted pearlers in the 1860s and provided early access via Port Stewart to the Palmer River goldfields during the gold rush of 1873. Port Stewart remained the entry port for both the Coen and Batavia goldfields.

When these fields were worked out many of the miners who stayed in the area turned their hand to harvesting sandalwood. The settlement of Moojeeba, for example, was gazetted in 1900 to service the sandalwood trade and the goldfields at Starcke and Coen. Grazing lands were also taken up at that time.


The increase in shipping using the inner passage through the Great Barrier Reef led to the establishment of several lights to improve shipping safety, initially by the colonial government and after Federation by the Commonwealth Light Service. One of the first to be built by the Commonwealth was the Wharton Reef light located just to the south of the confluence point. It was established in 1915 and was one of the first unattended automatic lights deployed in Queensland. The original light was deactivated in 1990 and is now displayed near the Townsville Maritime Museum.

During WW II a rumour went around that the Princess Charlotte Bay area was being used by the Japanese as a submarine refuelling base. An Army patrol from Townsville was flown into the area by Sunderland flying boat to investigate but found nothing. Clearly the remoteness of the area gave sufficient credence to the rumour.

Today: The main international shipping routes inside the Reef pass through the area. The inner route has been in use for many years, whilst the more recently established and shorter LADS Passage and Fairway Channel provide a safer and simpler route. This new passage was finally opened for shipping in 2003 following extensive surveys by the RAN Hydrographic Office employing a range of remote sensing technologies including the satellite imagery and the Laser Airborne Depth Sounder (LADS), as well as more traditional survey vessel soundings.

Pipon Island and various other key points are marked by modern automatic lights.

Pipon Island (Ken Granger photo, 2008)

Shipping lanes through the degree square

There are approximately 2000 ship transits through the inner route every year.

All of the inshore waters and all of the reef systems are zoned as Conservation Zones, Habitat Protection Zones or Marine National Parks as part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The Princess Charlotte Bay Special Management Area covers much of the shallow sea grass beds specifically to protect the area's dugong population.

Three National Parks occupy the southern parts of the area - Lakefield National Park and Cape Melville National Park on the mainland and the Flinders Group National Park covering that group of islands (see www.epa.qld.gov.au/parks_and_forests for details of each park).

The Aboriginal settlement of Port Stewart (or Yintjingga or Moojeeba/Theethinji) is the only permanent settlement within the degree square. This community is used seasonally by the Lamalama people on whose traditional land the settlement is located.

Seasonal camps to support the growing sport fishing tourism industry now operating in the area are also established. The fluctuation of population numbers is shown in the table.






Total population















Under 5 years





Over 64 years










Site Summary


Grub Reef, Princess Charlotte Bay in Cook Shire

Nearest town

Cooktown 200 km SSE


By boat (the point has not been reached)


Shallow reef

Geology & soils

Coral reef



Land use

Marine National Park


Tropical savannah

Population in degree square



A few dirt roads

National Parks

Great barrier Reef Marine Park, Lakefield National Park, Cape Melville National Park, Flinders Group National Park

Compiler: Ken Granger (2008)

Edited by: Hayley Freemantle


The account of tropical cyclone Mahina is based on a report produced in 1958 by H.E. Whittingham, then Divisional Officer of the Bureau of Meteorology Brisbane, who had access to contemporary documents from both official and private sources. The results of the modern investigations were reported by Dr Jonathon Nott (James Cook University, Cairns) and Dr Matt Hayne (Geoscience Australia, Canberra). The true story of Mohara was provided by Mr Jim McJannett whose assistance in correcting this part of the Mahina story is greatly appreciated.

Colin Hooper, 2006: Angor to Zillmanton - stories of North Queensland's deserted towns, Bolton Print, Townsville.