Cato Reef

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Cato Island is one of the largest of the Coral Sea Islands
Chart of Cato Reef

Cato Reef, a part of the Cato Bank, is an area in the Coral Sea off the northeastern coast of Queensland, Australia that is of approximately 21 km by 13 km of this 200 km2 area, where depth of water is typically less than 17 m. Upon Cato Bank Cato Reef encircles an area of 3.3 km by 1.8 km, area 5 km2 including a small shallow lagoon which contains Cato Island, a low-relief cay in the west that is approximately 650 by 300 m, area 15 hectares, 6 m high. Close to the southeast corner of Cato Bank is Hutchison Rock, with 1 m depth over it.


Solar powered weather station on Cato Island

Cato Island 23°15′S 155°32′E / 23.250°S 155.533°E / -23.250; 155.533 (Cato Island), is a small oval-shaped island lying approximately 375 km east of Gladstone, Queensland and about 270 km east-southeast of the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. This island is approximately 115 km south of Bird Islet, part of the east end of Wreck Reefs.

The island is a mound of coral debris and grit 5.8 m high covered in grass and creepers up to 1 m high. An automatic weather station, with two radio masts and a silver-painted hut, stands on the north-east end of the island.[1] The island is almost entirely surrounded by reefs: there are three narrow boat passages through the reefs on the northern side. The best entrance is the center one, located 350 meters north of the eastern end of Cato Island; it has a conspicuous rock at half tide on its eastern side.

The island lies on the western end of an oval-shaped reef enclosing a lagoon. The lagoon contains numerous coral heads. The sea breaks over the reef in all weather. The reef lies on Cato Bank, which falls away steeply on all sides.

Hutchison Rock 23°15′S 155°36′E / 23.250°S 155.600°E / -23.250; 155.600 (Hutchison Rock - Cato Island), with a depth of 5.5 m, lies 3.5 km east of Cato Reef.

Danger Patch lies near the outer end of the eastern ledge of Cato Bank. A tidal race is found between the eastern end of Cato Reef and Danger Patch.


Early reports[edit]

Cato Island, and then Bird Islet, were found by Captain John Park in Cato and Lt. Robert Fowler in HMS Porpoise on 17 August 1803. Porpoise ran aground on Wreck Reef. Matthew Flinders (1814) on the Porpoise reports that all the cays held many birds, laying in the period August–October.[2] ON 1 April 1821, the whaler Echo was wrecked on the shoal, though her crew was saved.

Cato Reef continued to present a hazard to shipping plying between Australia and Canton (modern day Guangzhou) or India (where cargo was collected on the way home from Australia to Europe). In due course the southern reefs were surveyed by Captain H. M. Denham (ms, 1860) in the HMS Herald in 1858–60.

The area was also visited by increasing numbers of whalers during the off season in New Zealand, in search of the many wintering humpback whales and fewer sperm whales[3] in the middle of the 19th century.[4] Denham reported that in July 1863 the islets only had two or three plants, including a bush 3–4 m high, and were frequented by sea turtles weighing 60–100 kg.

On 12 October 1858, Denham reported that Cato Island was more substantial than other cays in the area, measuring ⅓ by 1/6 miles, rising to 19 ft, and covered in coarse tufted grass,Rottboilla; a creeping plant, Nyctagin portulaca; and a sort of buttercup Senebiera crucifera, undermined and fertilised by burrowing mutton birds, the only species that the sailors wished to eat. There were dense colonies of gannets, man-of-war birds and boatswain birds, terns and noddies, with eggs and chicks, and he shot a godwit and a brace of plovers. There were records of repeated visits by whalers but now only one humpback was reported offshore. Rayner also recorded a Limosa, Charadrius, Strepsilas interpres, and a land rail. When they returned with plants from the Percy Isles and seeds from Sydney to provide succour for castaways in August 1859, Denham again reported that the birds formed a cloud hovering 60 feet above the island, though “a few visits like ours would tend to check the accumulation in proportion to each boat bringing off upwards of 100 dozen eggs at a three hours gleaning."

Guano mining[edit]

On 27 October 1862, the British government granted an exclusive concession to exploit the guano on Lady Elliot Island, Wreck Reefs, Swain Reefs, Raine Island, Bramble Cay, Brampton Shoal, and Pilgrim Island[5] to the Anglo-Australian Guano Company organised by the whaler, Dr. W.L. Crowther in Hobart, Tasmania. They were apparently most active on Bird Islet (Wreck Reefs) and Lady Elliot and Raine Islands,[6] losing five ships at Bird Islet between 186l and 1882.[7]

The Daily Southern Cross, 19 September 1863, reported on page 2 that the following memorandum, enclosed in a bottle, was picked up by Captain Harris, of the Caroline, which arrived in Hobson's Bay during Wednesday night, with a cargo of guano from Cato Island, and was found on the Cato Bank:- "25 June 1863 – Prince Edward, of Auckland, Geo. Cook, master, 7 weeks from Bay of Islands, 80 sperm, 6 of blackfish. All well. – Argus,26 August.[8]

Known shipwrecks[edit]


On 3 August 1853 the Dockenhuden, a German ship in transit between Melbourne and Bombay, failed in a tack off Cato Reef and having no room to jibe, struck the reef and became a total wreck. The crew spent 15 days repairing the ship's boats before leaving for Moreton Bay, which was reached on 27 August.[9]

Thomas King[edit]

The Thomas King, a barque of 346 tons was built for the West Indian sugar run, then taken to Australia for the gold rush. Captain J.H. Walker, with a crew shanghaied with the help of local police, because the original crew from England had deserted for the gold fields, left Sydney on 4 April 1852 for the Philippines and China with a cargo of sugar and spirits. Wrecked on a reef east of Cato Reef, Queensland, 17 April 1852. The barque struck the reef and became total wreck. Some of her boats were washed away. A boat set out for the mainland to seek help, leaving survivors on the reef. After 14 days they were rescued by the whaler Lady Blackwood. The other boat eventually made Double Island Bay, but when the occupants set out overland for Moreton Bay they were tracked down by aborigines and all but the captain and one seaman were killed. When lost, the Thomas King carried 3,500 pounds worth of specie, and 8,000 pounds worth of gold dust.[9] At the time of sailing it was reported that the gold aboard the Thomas King, consisted of 212 ounces owned by L. and S. Spyer and 220 ounces 8 penny weights 12 grains owned A. and M. Moses, giving a total weight of 432 ounces 8 penny weights 12 grains or 13.45 kg of gold.[10]


  1. ^ Latest coastal weather observations for Cato Island.
  2. ^ Flinders, M. 1814. A Voyage to Terra Australis in the years 1801, 1802 and 1803. London, G. and W. Nicol (volume 2-page 298).
  3. ^ Townsend, C.H.1935. "The distribution of certain whales as shown by the logbook records of American whaleships". Zoologia, New York l9: 1‑50.
  4. ^ Thiercelin, L. 1866. Journal d’un Baleinier: voyages en océanie. Hachette, Paris, vol. 1:2ll‑233
  5. ^ Pilgrim Island is not located, possibly somewhere off Western Australia
  6. ^ Hutchinson, G.E. 1950. "The biogeochemistry of vertebrate excretion". Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 96:l‑544
  7. ^ Crowther, W.E.L.H. 1939. "The development of the guano trade from Hobart Town in the fifties and sixties." Papers and Proceedings Royal Society Tasmania 1938:213‑220
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b Loney, J. K. (Jack Kenneth), 1925–1995
  10. ^ The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser Saturday 10 April 1852


  • Australian shipwrecks Vol. 1 1622–1850 By Charles Bateson. Sydney. Reed, 1972 910.4530994 BAT
  • Australian shipwrecks Vol. 2 1851–1871 By Loney, J. K. (Jack Kenneth), 1925–1995. Sydney. Reed, 1980 910.4530994 LON
  • Australian shipwrecks Vol. 3 1871–1900 By Loney, J. K. (Jack Kenneth), 1925–1995. Geelong Vic: List Publishing, 1982 910.4530994 LON
  • Australian shipwrecks Vol. 4 1901–1986 By Loney, J. K. (Jack Kenneth), 1925–1995. Portarlington Vic. Marine History Publications, 1987 910.4530994 LON
  • Australian shipwrecks Vol. 5 Update 1986 By Loney, J. K. (Jack Kenneth), 1925–1995. Portarlington Vic. Marine History Publications, 1991 910.4530994 LON

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 23°15′S 155°32′E / 23.250°S 155.533°E / -23.250; 155.533