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Home : Holidays : Southeast Asia : Ashmore : Ashmore and Cartier Islands

Ashmore and Cartier Islands

The Territory of Ashmore and Cartier Islands comprises the West, Middle and East Islands of Ashmore Reef, Cartier Island and the 12 nautical mile territorial sea generated by those islands. These areas are indicated on the lower map by the two enclosing boundary lines. The islands are uninhabited, small, low and composed of coral and sand, with some grass cover.  

The Territory is located on the outer edge of the continental shelf in the Indian Ocean approximately 320 km off Australia's north-west coast and 170 kilometers south of the Island of Roti . The Jabiru and Challis oil fields are adjacent to the Territory.

The proximity of the Territory to Indonesia has been the subject of joint official discussions in recent years. In 1997, a Treaty aimed at settling a number of maritime boundaries between the two countries was signed. 

 Ashmore Reef

Ashmore Reef is located in the Timor Sea about 840 kilometres west of Darwin and 610 kilometres north of Broome. It is part of the Australian External Territory of Ashmore and Cartier Islands and comprises a shelf-edge reef system of approximately 583 square kilometres, rising from the westward limit of the Sahul Shelf. Three small islands and a number of shifting sand cays lie within the reef rim. The combined area of the islands is 112 hectares, the largest being about one kilometre long. The plant communities are mainly shrubland and herbland, and the luxuriant growth of the wet season is in sharp contrast to the dry season when there is a layer of dead plant material over much of the islands. The Ashmore islands and the sand cay on Cartier reef are the only permanently dry land areas in the north-eastern Indian Ocean.

Its location and range of habitats makes Ashmore Reef of great conservation significance, lying as it does in the path of the Indonesian Throughflow. This is a westerly current transporting an immense volume of water from the Pacific Ocean, which passes along the northern coast of New Guinea and then moves down through the Indonesian archipelago and into the Indian Ocean. Ashmore materially benefits from these low-salinity waters bathing the reef, through larval recruitment from reef systems to the north contributing to the maintenance of gene diversity. The reefal waters are also enriched by the South-east Trade winds, which generate a surface current from the Arafura and Timor Seas, thereby transporting marine organisms to Ashmore from eastern waters.

These influences have brought about an unusually high species diversity in and around the reef. Of these, perhaps most interesting is the presence of fourteen varieties of sea snake in the waters of Ashmore, two of which may be endemic to the Ashmore/Scott Reef area. This is the greatest number of species ever recorded for any one area. Over 255 varieties of coral, 433 species of mollusc and 70 fish species have been identified, and further research is expected to increase these figures. The islands are significant marine turtle nesting areas, while dugong, various cetacions and whale sharks are sighted regularly around the reef.

It is not surprising that the Australian Government sought to protect this significant reef by declaring it to be a National Nature Reserve in 1983.

Ashmore's extensive tidal sand flats provide a major staging and feeding habitat for migratory birds, and the three islands provide sites for a high concentration of nesting seabirds. A total of 88 bird species have been recorded from the Ashmore Reef, including a number of Indonesian species not found elsewhere in Australia. A total of twenty bird species breed on the islands, an unusually high figure in comparison with other off-shore seabird nesting islands.

Many Indonesian fishermen from islands to the immediate north, call in at Ashmore each year under the provisions of a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Australian and Indonesian Governments. This agreement allows the fishermen to utilise areas of the sea which they have accessed traditionally for centuries, although there are now restrictions placed on all fishing and access by the general public within the Nature Reserve. These are aimed at the protection and preservation of the wide range of wildlife resident on this outstanding reef.

Much of the reef including East and Middle Islands has been closed to visitors, in order to protect the seabird breeding colonies and the environment within the reef rim. Visiting vessels may access the West Island lagoon for shelter, and may go ashore on West Island in order to obtain water, but it is not considered to be potable and may become brackish towards the end of the dry season. The access restrictions apply to Indonesian fishermen and all other visitors.


History of Ashmore Reef National Nature Reserve 

For centuries Indonesian fishermen have exploited resources along the north of the Western Australian coast and also around the islands and reefs located off this coastline. They have targeted a range of species including beche-de-mer (trepang or sea cucumber), trocus, seabirds (particularly frigate birds), seabird eggs, sharks, marine turtles, clams and various molluscs. There has been some subsistence fishing but the majority of the product has been collected for sale on the Asian market. Trocus shells are used in the manufacture of buttons and dried beche-de-mer and sharkfin are sought after food products through much of Asia.

Traditional fishers had no navigational equipment and many set a course from Indonesia using land marks. When some distance out to sea they would then head for the clouds which form above Ashmore Reef. At Ashmore they replenished water from the fresh water wells and collected birds and eggs for food. From here they sailed to the islands and coastline further south.

Captain Samuel Ashmore, Commander of the Hibernia, was the first European to 'discovered' the Reef on 11 June 1811. The nearby Hibernia Reef was named after the ship. During the 1850s American whaling ships operated in the region. Then during the later half of the nineteenth century the phosphate mining was carried out on West Island. This resulted in the removal of most of the topsoil and the impacts are still evident today.

From as early as 1952, scientists expressed concern that plants and birds of the islands of Ashmore Reef were at risk from over-harvesting by Indonesian fishers. In November 1974, traditional Indonesian fishing practices in the region were formalised under a Memorandum of Understanding between the Governments of Australia and Indonesia. This MOU covers Scott Reefs, Seringapatam Reef, Browse Island, Ashmore Reef, Cartier Island and various banks. On 16 August 1983 the Ashmore Reef National Nature Reserve was proclaimed as part of the Australian Government's intention to protect this important area. Under the Memorandum of Understanding, traditional Indonesian fishers are still permitted to land on West Island to obtain water and may also fish and anchor in the channel adjacent to West Island.



Cartier Island is located in the West Sahul region of the Indian Ocean at 12o31'50.8" S, 123o33'18.8" E. The island is about 300km off Australia's Kimberley coast, 200km south of the Indonesian island of Roti and 70km from Ashmore Reef. The surrounding reef flat rises steeply from the surrounding depths. Cartier Island is an unvegetated sand cay at the centre of the reef.  

The Cartier Island Marine Reserve includes Cartier Island and the surrounding reef, covering an area within a 7.2km radius of the centre of the island (167 square kilometres) including the substrata to a depth of 1000 metres below the seafloor. The Reserve protects the unique and vulnerable ecosystems of Cartier Island and surrounding reefs. It allows natural processes to restore the ecological balance and biological diversity of the reef, provides a refuge area for species targeted for harvesting in the wider region, and facilitates the transportation of biological material from the rich reefs of Asia to the reef systems located along the West Australian coast. The Australian Government intends to expand this area of marine protected estate.

The area within 7.2km of Cartier Island includes a variety of habitats that interact to maintain the ecosystem around Cartier Island and contribute to the maintenance of other reefs, banks and islands in the region. Some of these major habitats include the reef flat, the reef edge, a small submerged pinnacle known as Wave Governor Bank, and the shelf flat surrounding the pinnacles including a portion of Pasco Passage to the north of Cartier Island. Cartier Reef is considered an important biological stepping stone, fulfilling a role in linking the reef systems of Indonesia and the Philippines to those along the West Australian coasts.

The marine environments of the North-West Shelf and specifically the West Sahul region, are high in biological diversity and support some of the most complex biological systems on earth. Recent surveys have identified 547 species of fish, including eleven species not previously recorded in Australia, representing approximately 16% of Australia's fish species.

Results of a large scale survey and analysis of the biological and cultural values of Cartier Island and Hibernia Reef indicate that the areas provide significant habitat for an unusually high diversity and density of sea-snakes, molluscs, corals, sponges, echinoderms, polychaete worms, non-caridean crustacea and foraminifera. The region also provides an important feeding and breeding habitat for some threatened species including sea turtles and dugongs.



Like Ashmore Reef, Cartier Island and its surrounding reefs have been visited by Indonesian fisherman for centuries. Traditional Indonesian fishers have an historical and on-going association with the islands and reefs along the north of the West Australian coast. In the past, fisherman have collected birds, birds eggs, clams, holothurians (sea cucumber), shells, turtles, and turtle eggs for consumption and trade on the Asian market.

The relic of The Ann Millicent, an iron hulled barge of 944 tons, lies on the reef edge. It was wrecked on Cartier Island on 5 January 1888 on a voyage from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Adelaide.

During the Second World War a RAAF Beaufighter sustained damage during conflict and landed on Cartier Island. Some remains of the aircraft are still visible.

Cartier Island and its surrounding areas (within a radius of 10 kilometres) is a gazetted Defence Practice Area and has been used as an air weapons range by the Department of Defence in the past. Active use of the area for Defence purposes dates back to the Second World War. The risk of unexploded ordnance poses a safety hazard to visitors to the reef and island. Because of this risk, and to protect the biodiversity of Cartier Island Marine Reserve, visitor access to the Reserve is prohibited.

History of Cartier Island

Cartier Island