Coral Sea Islands

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The Coral Sea Islands, which were discovered in 1803, became a territory of Australia under the Coral Sea Islands Act (1969). The boundaries were further extended to include Elizabeth and Middleton reefs in 1987. The Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department administers the territory.

The territory is spread over a vast area (780,000 km2), and takes in numerous small islands that extend east and south from the outer Great Barrier Reef. These islands include Heralds Beacon Island, Osprey Reef and the Willis Group, as well as fifteen other reef and island groups. The coral and sand islands are quite small and boast some grass and low vegetation cover, but the occasional tropical cyclones that sweep across them between November and April leave them largely denuded.

The islands were mined for guano in the 1870s and 1880s but the lack of permanent fresh water forced the abandonment of that enterprise. During the 19th century the constantly shifting sand cays saw the wreck of many ships, which gave their names to the reefs and islands in the area.

The only inhabitants of the islands are a large population of seabirds (around 24 species), two species of turtles that visit during nesting season, and an occasional meteorologist on Willis Island. Unmanned weather stations, beacons, and a lighthouse are located on several other islands and reefs. All wildlife on the islands is legally protected.