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Nature, culture and history

Natural environment

Vulnerable red-tailed tropicbird. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

Vulnerable red-tailed tropicbird. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

Brown booby and chick. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

Brown booby and chick. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

Green turtle hatchlings. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

Green turtle hatchlings. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

Female green turtles nesting. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

Female green turtles nesting. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

Raine Island, Moulter and MacLennan cays are small coral cays situated on the outer reef in the remote far north of the Great Barrier Reef. Raine Island is a vegetated coral cay, approximately 27ha in area. Broad sand beaches surround a low phosphate rock platform.

Raine Island is a highly significant seabird rookery. Eighty-four bird species have been recorded here at Raine Island since the first documented visit in 1842. Some species of seabirds present on Raine Island are not found on any other island within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Sixteen different species are known to have bred on Raine Island and include endangered Herald petrels Pterodroma heraldica; vulnerable red-tailed tropicbirds Phaethon rubricauda; brown, red-footed and masked boobies Sula leucogaster, S. sula and S. dactylatra; nankeen night-herons Nycticorax caledonicus and lesser frigatebirds Fregata ariel. Wedged-tailed shearwaters Ardenna pacifica also use the island.

For many years, the late Mr Brian King, from QPWS, studied seabirds on Raine Island and on other islands on the Great Barrier Reef. Much of his pioneering work at Raine Island was supported by the Raine Island Corporation and current studies are building on the results of this research. In 1993, with the support of Mr King’s family, the corporation established an encouragement award for student seabird research in his memory.

Raine Island and Moulter and MacLennan cays, and surrounding areas, provide refuge for vulnerable green turtles Chelonia mydas. The green turtles, which nest at Raine Island and Moulter Cay, are a genetically distinct population of ancient lineage that has long been isolated from populations in other parts of the world. This population is one of the largest remaining stocks of green turtles in the world.

Tens of thousands of adult female green turtles come ashore each year to nest on Raine Island. The numbers of turtles nesting varies throughout the year, with the highest density nesting occurring during the mid-summer months. Researchers use various methods to measure nesting population size—a difficult undertaking in a remote location with large numbers of animals. Researchers have found large variation in the annual numbers of nesting turtles. These fluctuations correlate with the atmospheric phenomenon, El Nino, a climate pattern of temperature and pressure variations of the ocean’s surface in the tropical Pacific Ocean. In a typical dense nesting season, an estimated 41,000 females breed annually at Raine Island; while in a very high density nesting season, the annual nesting population would approximate 131,000 females.

The successful conservation of the green turtle breeding population depends not only on the management of Raine Island, but also on the rate at which this population is being harvested throughout its foraging region. These turtles travel from the waters of Indonesia, New Guinea, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and far northern Australia to nest at Raine Island. Individual green turtles may make migrations of up to 2600km.

Moulter Cay is a small, vegetated cay, supporting significant colonies of nesting boobies and terns during summer and winter, and providing additional habitat for green turtle nesting. MacLennan Cay is a small unvegetated cay, only suitable as a roosting site for seabirds. As turtles and seabirds are ground-nesting and easily disturbed by people, access to Raine Island and Moulter and MacLennan cays is restricted to those involved in essential management-related and conservation research.

Culture and history

The convict-built stone beacon is the oldest European structure in Australia's northern tropics. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

The convict-built stone beacon is the oldest European structure in Australia's northern tropics. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

Seabirds make use of the tower today. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

Seabirds make use of the tower today. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

The tower stands sentinel on this remote part of the reef. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

The tower stands sentinel on this remote part of the reef. Photo: John Cornelius, Queensland Government

Indigenous culture

Maritime Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups used the Raine Island area—including the islands, reefs and waters surrounding Raine Island and MacLennan and Moulter cays—both before European settlement and afterwards.

The Wuthathi people identify as the Traditional Owners and holders of native title rights and interests in the area, including holding custodial rights to speak for, govern and manage native title rights in the area. The Erubam Le, Meriam Le and Ugarem Le people identify as holders of native title rights and interests in the area.

Torres Strait Islanders from eastern Torres Strait, Murray, Darnley and Stephen islands sailed large dugout canoes, and visited the area prior to European arrival. The Wuthathi Aboriginal people (and their predecessors), from mainland Cape York Peninsula, constructed seaworthy canoes, both single and double outriggers. They maintained cultural and social contacts with the Torres Strait Islanders.

The islands, reefs and waters of the outer barrier reef were extensively used for harvesting turtles, pearls, trochus, and later also beche-de-mer (sea cucumbers). Names of eastern Torres Strait Islander and mainland Aboriginal people carved on the historic stone beacon that stands on Raine Island today reflect how far they travelled by vessel in the 1800s.

European culture

Raine Island is located in a remote area of the Great Barrier Reef that was the site of numerous shipwrecks, particularly during the 1800s, and even today remains poorly charted.

Raine Island was named in 1824 after Thomas Raine (1793–1860), master mariner and captain of the Surry, who reported the presence of the island in 1815.

Raine Island is the site of the oldest European structure in the northern tropics of Australia—a stone beacon. The beacon was designed as an aid to shipping passing through this part of the reef. The beacon was constructed in 1844, under the order of the British Admiralty by 20 convict stonemasons and labourers.

Stone for the beacon was quarried from the phosphate rock found on the island. Shells were burned to make lime for mortar and ironically, timbers were taken from shipwrecks in the area. The work took four months and was supervised by soldiers from New South Wales. The 14m tall beacon, originally canvas-topped, was never lit.

In 1890–1892, guano (phosphatic rock) mining of historical significance began on the island. The J.T. Arundel Company established a large operation that included constructing tram tracks, huts and a loading jetty. One hundred Chinese and Malay labourers and ten European supervisors were employed. Tens of thousands of tonnes of phosphate were dug and exported. Albert F. Ellis was the manager and the grave near the tower is that of his mother, Annie Eliza, who died on 29 June 1891, aged 52 years. Her last words were recorded as Father! Not my will but thine be done. My-God-of-Love. Reader! Be Ye Also Ready’, a potent reminder of the hardships endured by the island’s inhabitants.

Over the years the beacon has suffered damage from undermining, stone bedding loss, cracking walls from lightning strikes, and natural deterioration due to the harsh weather conditions experienced at Raine Island.

A grant, obtained under the 1988 Australian Bicentennial Project, enabled Scottish stonemason, Iain Watson, and crew to complete conservation and restoration work. This included actual replacement block fabrication on site using the 1844 quarry area, sealing of the parapet top and the construction of an aluminium access ladder leading to a grill floor just below the parapet, (to enable future research observational possibilities). To complete this project, the team lived on the island for two months.

In 1994 another restoration program was undertaken to repair and stabilise the beacon and to safeguard it from lightning strikes. A John Herbert Award for Excellence in Heritage Conservation Works or Action was awarded for the restoration project. The beacon, which includes 900 legible carved or painted inscriptions including Erubam Le, Meriam Le, and Ugarem Le names, is considered one of the most important historical monuments in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and is listed on the State Heritage Register and the Register of the National Estate.

Last updated
7 March 2017