10 days on a deserted Great Barrier Reef Island

by Paul Wise




“birds, turtles, a tower and a grave”


A multi-million dollar project to rehabilitate a protected island of the Great Barrier Reef prompted me to recall a stay on that same island some 45 years ago.


During October 1971, Aerodist station establishment and measuring operations were undertaken in the Coral Sea and Torres Strait in the northern part of Aerodist Block 23 from Cairns to Daru and out to Willis Island. Station establishment activities were conducted on offshore features such as reefs, cays and islets in conjunction with Aerodist line measuring operations (McLean, 2015).



Figure 1 : Department of Transport Navaids vessel (left) showing its launch and Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo (LARC) and (right) a LARC in action at a sand cay as a dry platform from which to operate an Aerodist remote unit.


The offshore operations were supported by Department of Transport Navaids vessels principally MV Cape Pillar and MV Cape Moreton. Owing to crew change requirements the MV Cape Moreton was later replaced by the MV Cape Don. Each of these 2,000 ton vessels was equipped with a Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo (LARC) as well as a launch. Please refer to Figure 1 above. 


Figure 2 : Map indicating Raine Island’s position off the coast of Australia.


One of the points occupied during this Aerodist survey was Raine Island. Please refer to Figure 2 above. Some 200 kilometres south east of the tip of Cape York, Raine Island (11º 35.6’S 144º 02.1’E) is at the north-western end of an oval patch of coral reef some 3.5 kilometres long and ¾ kilometres wide. This reef is at the very outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. The island itself is a D shaped speck of coral, phosphate rock and sand less than 1 kilometre long by ½ kilometre wide. Please refer to Figure 3 below. The island was named after the captain of HMS Surrey in 1824, a young English naval officer Thomas Raine. Raine (1793-1860) surveyed the Great Barrier Reef in the Surry and discovered the island in late 1814 or early 1815.



Figure 3 : Raine Island in its coral reef (left) and the island itself (right).


As part of the Aerodist survey, the plan was for myself, Peter Blake and Peter Bach to be put ashore on the island with enough food and water to last for up to two weeks. Whilst there, we were to monitor the radio and be ready to operate the remote Aerodist unit for line measuring, establish the Aerodist station, survey the island for azimuth (direction) and distance and mark for spot photography. 


Approaching by sea the first evidence you saw of Raine Island was the grey masonry tower structure. The remnants of a beacon, constructed in 1844 under the orders of the British Admiralty, to warn shipping of the dangers of the reef. Twenty convicts, from HMS Bramble and HMS Fly, used stone quarried from the island’s phosphate rock to build a beacon 21.2 metres high. Mortar was made from burnt shells and timber came from the wreck of the Martha Ridgeway. Please refer to Figure 4 below. The work was completed in four months. (The 621 ton Barque Martha Ridgeway was lost on 7 July 1842, on voyage to Bombay with 1 passenger and a crew of 28).


Raine Island beacon in elevation (left) and in painting (right).

Raine Island beacon in eroded condition (left) and in 1971 (right).

Figure 4 : Raine Island beacon in history.


The beacon was never lit but can be seen for up to 13 nautical miles from the island. While it has not been confirmed, it is believed that the beacon was the third navigation aid to be constructed in Australian waters. It now stands as the oldest European structure in the Australian tropics and is a monument of great historical value. As such the beacon is listed on the Queensland State Heritage Register and the Register of the National Estate.

As can be seen in Figure 4 above, the beacon had already undergone repairs by the time of our 1971 visit. 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, the Raine Island Corporation undertook a major restoration program to repair and stabilise the beacon and to safeguard it from lightning strikes. More can be found on Raine Island in a 1981 paper by Stoddart, Gibbs, and Hopley, titled Natural History of Raine Island, Great Barrier Reef. In their list of historical visitors to Raine Island our 1971 visit, despite being of great survey and mapping significance, did not rate a mention!

Much of Raine Island was originally covered with guano and lightly cemented phosphate rock. The then valuable fertiliser formed the basis of a brief but considerable mining industry in 1890-92. The digging operations were conducted by Albert Ellis, who arrived on the island in 1890. There are reports however, that suggest that guano extraction began as early as 1882. A tramway was built from the workings to a new jetty, and a locomotive imported. A storage shed was built to house the guano between shipments. Export was by sailing ships of 1000-1500 tons, direct to Europe, with the exception of two which sailed directly to Melbourne. The guano was packed in 60lb sacks for ease of handling. Water supply for the large labour force, estimated at 110 persons, was supplied from a water condenser. In 1892 the digging ended and the equipment was dismantled and removed. It is estimated that tens of thousands of tons of guano were exported during that brief period. (Albert Ellis, 1869-1951, extracted guano on other islands of the Great Barrier Reef and was later knighted for his services to the mining industry.)


Sadly, Albert Ellis' mother died on Raine Island during the mining period. Annie Eliza is buried in a grave with a marble stone adjacent to the beacon. The inscription read :


In loving memory


Annie Eliza

wife of

George C. Ellis

entered into rest

June 29th. 1891

aged 52 years

Her last words were

Father! not my will

But thine be done.

My - God - of – Love

                       Reader !

Be ye also ready



As mentioned above there is no water supply on Raine Island. During the HMS Fly expedition water was imported and despite wells being sunk no palatable water was ever found or has been reported. A carved inscription on the inside of the walls of the beacon, however, apparently of mid-nineteenth century date, stated that fresh water could be obtained at a depth of 7 feet. Fortunately, we had no time or requirement to confirm that statement!


LARC leaving Raine Island (left) and lagoon from campsite (right).

Raine Island camp (left) and beacon from camp (right).

Figure 5 : 1971 Raine Island camp.


During our stay we found only the grave and beacon on an arid island covered with low shrubs and grasses above the high tide line; there were no trees. The sea birds nested among the grasses and shrubs such that one had to weave a path through the nests. Many nests contained chicks (white bundles of fur with long sharp beaks) who had no hesitation in trying to take a bite out of you as you passed, and more often than not succeeded. There was no sign of any recent human activity.


The three of us with all our personal, camping and technical equipment plus food and water, were landed by LARC. Camp was set up on the wide beach in the shadow of the beacon. This meant we were away from the birds’ nesting area which not only smelt awful but possibly contained some nasty lice and fleas. The white beach sand was clean and dry by contrast. Please refer to Figure 5 above.


Figure 6 : Raine Island Aerodist station NM/OS/28 from campsite.


The highest point of the island, being only some 3 metres above sea level, was quickly found. This high point was also chosen in an area then clear of nests. A steel picket was driven to refusal thus the station mark for NM/OS/28 was established. Please refer to Figure 6 above. This meant that Aerodist line measuring operations could begin as soon as required. In the meantime, the rest of the station was established and surveyed. We had bought steel star fence posts, water pipe, cement and paint for this purpose. In the desert the concrete was mixed upon a rubber mat. This stopped the water draining into the sand and the mat could be rolled up for transport even in a helicopter. A mat served the same practical purpose here. A precast bronze annulus, with the requisite station identifier already engraved, was set in concrete around the top of the station mark.


Figure 7 : Diagram showing the eight lines measured by Aerodist from Raine Island.


As soon as we had a break in Aerodist line measuring operations and could thus leave the radio unattended for most of the day, we went to the north-west end of the island. Please refer to Figure 7 above. This end of the island was also the farthest away from camp. We carried a 4"x4" fence post, steel fence post, sledge hammer, shovel, white plastic sheeting, a steel measuring band and ancillary equipment. As we were loaded with all this materiel we took the circuitous beach route rather than walking straight across the island. Although a longer route our footing was more secure and we did not have to watch for nesting birds.


At a suitable spot at this far end of the island, a steel post was set securely in the rock and sand, with the 4”x4” post as witness. The plastic sheeting was laid out and held down to mark the location so it could later be identified on the yet to be acquired, spot photography. Using the steel band, the straight-line distance back to the Aerodist station was measured. We now had to traverse the nesting area but without the heavy and cumbersome posts and plastic sheeting we could move slowly and pick our way carefully.


At the Aerodist station the line was extended back to the end of the island nearest camp. There another steel and 4”x4” post were set and marked with plastic. The distance from the Aerodist station to this mark was then measured. Thus the some 650 metre length of the island’s major rock axis was obtained. Please refer to Figure 8 below.


Figure 8 : 1981 map of Raine Island after Stoddart, Gibbs, and Hopley (1981), showing that the four witness posts of the Aerodist station still existed (red flash) and indicating the approximate positions of the 1971 posts erected to establish the terminals of the major axis of the island (blue flashes); the 1971 camp site is indicated by the green star.


On the next convenient afternoon, the Sun was used to determine the azimuth of the measured line by sighting to the post at the far end of the island. Towards the end of our stay the Aerodist line measuring aircraft over-flew the island and acquired the requisite spot photos of the survey marks.


We had no choice but to trek through the bird’s nesting area to man the Aerodist remote unit at the station mark on a daily basis. As we were scratched by the low scrub and chicks, at low tide we all took a swim to wash off any nasties and clean any scratches. At low tide the waters of the reef were barely deep enough to cover you lying down. Nevertheless, knowing there were sharks around, the shallow water gave us some protection but in addition we took turns at keeping watch. At no time was anyone allowed in the water alone.


If we could, at low tide we would wade out on the reef and look for any fish that had been stranded as the tide ebbed. The reef colours were spectacular but few fish were ever discovered. On more than one occasion, in the deeper areas of water on the reef, a fin was seen cruising about, hence our caution when in the water.


Sharks were also seen while we tried to fish as they would come right in and take the bait. A small shark was taken one afternoon and on another a school of fish swam around ignoring our bait. All in all, we only had fish on two of the ten nights on the island despite being surrounded by some of the best fishing grounds in Australia.   


None of us had had any previous personal experience with turtles. As we sat around the campfire one night staring into the flames, there seemed to be movement in the sand. Initially it was thought to be shadows from the flames until several baby turtles appeared in the firelight. No bigger than the palm of your hand, their flippers in constant motion, they were headed for the sea. Turning on our torches we found the nest from which they had emerged and helped many negotiate the obstacles formed by our campsite. On several of the following nights we went out on patrol with our bucket, collecting emerging turtles that had become stranded by our being there and dumping them into the sea.


When setting up camp I made the mistake of having the entrance to my tent facing the sea. This was to catch the sea breeze. One night my sleep was disturbed by something under my camp stretcher hitting me in the back. Putting my hand out I touched slimy shell. Mama turtle had blundered into my open tent as she came up the beach to lay her eggs. As our tents had the floor attached to the sides we had to manoeuvre Mama Turtle back out; but Mama wanted to go one way and we wanted her to go the other; not an easy task but we won and Mama went safely on her way and we went back to sleep.


Figure 9 : Packed and ready to leave Raine Island; Peter Bach left and Peter Blake right.


After 10 days of a clear horizon, the MV Cape Pillar materialised and its LARC was despatched to collect us, our equipment and rubbish. Please refer to Figure 10 above. As Raine Island disappeared from our view we noted that we had left nothing but the survey marks to the birds and turtles.



Thanks to the various Natmappers for the photographs used in this article.





McLean, Lawrence William (2015), The Aerodist Years : Recollections of the Division of National Mapping’s Airborne Distance Measuring Program, 1963-1974.


Porcher , Edwin Augustus (undated), Beacon built at Raines Islet, accessed at :


Queensland Government (2017), The Raine Island Recovery Project, accessed at :


State Library of Queensland (2016), Raine Island Beacon, State Library of Queensland Neg. No. 17071, accessed at :


Stoddart, DR, Gibbs, PE, and Hopley, D (1981), Natural History of Raine Island, Great Barrier Reef, Atoll Research Bulletin No. 254, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C., U.S.A., July 1981.