Rottnest Island (known as Wadjemup to the local Noongar people, and otherwise colloquially known as Rotto) is an island off the coast of Western Australia, located 18 kilometres (11 mi) west of Fremantle. The island covers 19 square kilometres (7.3 sq mi) and is administered by the Rottnest Island Authority under a separate act of parliament. Rottnest is a popular holiday destination, and there are daily ferry services to Perth, the state's capital and largest city. It has a permanent population of around 100 people, with around 500,000 annual visitors (and up to 15,000 visitors during periods).
A sandy, low-lying island formed on a base of limestone, Rottnest is an A-class reserve, the highest level of protection afforded to public land. A number of native and introduced bird species nest near the shallow salt lakes in the island's interior, and Rottnest has consequently been designated an Important Bird Area. The island also includes three endemic tree species, notably the Rottnest Island pine, and was heavily forested before settlement. Rottnest is perhaps best known for its population of quokkas, a small native marsupial found in very few other locations. The island also includes colonies of Australian sea lions and southern fur seals.
Along with several other islands, Rottnest was separated from the mainland around 7,000 years ago, when sea levels rose. Human artefacts have been found on the island dating back at least 30,000 years, and the island is called Wadjemup by the Noongar people. Dutch sailors landed there on several occasions during the 17th century, by which time it was uninhabited. The island was named by Willem de Vlamingh in 1696, who called it Rotte nest ("rat's nest") after the quokka population. Since the establishment of the Swan River Colony by British settlers in 1829, the island has variously hosted a penal colony, military installations, and internment camps for enemy aliens. Many of the island's buildings date from the colonial period, often made from locally quarried limestone, and are now used as accommodation for holidays.
Rottnest Island was inhabited by Aboriginal people until rising sea levels separated the island from the mainland of Western Australia about 7,000 years ago. The island features in Noongar Aboriginal mythology as Wadjemup, meaning "place across the water where the spirits are". Aboriginal artefacts on the island have been dated from 6,500 to more than 30,000 years ago. However, recent evidence (1999) suggests human occupation significantly before 50,000, possibly as early as 70,000 BP.
There were no people on the island when European exploration began in the 17th century, and the Aboriginal people on the mainland did not have boats that could make the crossing, so the island had probably been uninhabited for several thousand years.
The island was observed by various Dutch sailors from 1610, including Frederick de Houtman in 1619. The first Europeans known to land on the island were 13 Dutch sailors including Abraham Leeman van Santwits from the Waeckende Boey who landed near Bathurst Point on 19 March 1658 while their ship was careened nearby. The ship had sailed from Batavia (Jakarta) in search of survivors of the missing Vergulde Draeck which was later found wrecked 80 km north near present-day Ledge Point. Samuel Volkersenn, the skipper of the Waeckende Boey described the island in his journal:
In slightly under 32° S. Lat. there is a large island, at about 3 miles' distance from the mainland of the South-land; this island has high mountains, with a good deal of brushwood and many thornbushes, so that it is hard to go over; here certain animals are found, since we saw many excrements, and besides two seals and a wild cat, resembling a civet-cat, but with browner hair. This island is dangerous to touch at, owing to the rocky reefs which are level with the water and below the surface, almost along the whole length of the shore; between it and the mainland there are also numerous rocks and reefs, and slightly more to southward there is another small island.
This large island to which we have been unwilling to give a name, leaving this matter to the Honourable Lord Governor-General's pleasure, may be seen at 7 or 8 miles' distance out at sea in fine weather. I surmise that brackish or fresh water might be obtainable there, and likewise good firewood, but not without great trouble.
In his 1681 chart the English captain John Daniel marked an island as Maiden's Isle, possibly referring to Rottnest. The name did not survive, however.
The island was given the name "Rotte nest" (meaning "rat nest" in the 17th century Dutch language) by Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh who spent six days exploring the island from 29 December 1696, mistaking the quokkas for giant rats. De Vlamingh led a fleet of three ships, De Geelvink, De Nijptang and Weseltje and anchored on the northern side of the island, near The Basin. He described the island as a "...a paradise on earth".
Other explorers who stopped at the island included members of the French expedition of Nicholas Baudin in the Naturaliste and the Geographe in 1801 (when he planted a flag and left a bottle with a letter) and 1803, Phillip Parker King in 1822, and Captain James Stirling in 1827. Early visitors commonly reported that much of the island was heavily wooded, which is not the case today.
In 1831, shortly after the establishment of the British Swan River Colony at nearby Fremantle, William Clarke and Robert Thomson received land grants for town lots and pasture land on the island. Thomson immediately moved to the island with his wife and seven children. He developed pasture land for hay production west of Herschel Lake as well as salt harvesting from the several salt lakes which was then exported to the mainland settlement. Salt was an important commodity before the advent of refrigeration.
Six Aboriginal prisoners were sent to Rottnest Island in August 1838 under the superintendence of Mr. Welch and a small military force: Helia, for murder; Buoyeen, for assault; Mollydobbin, Tyoocan, Goordap, and Cogat, for theft. All six escaped shortly after their arrival by stealing Thomson's boat. Helia drowned during the crossing, but the others apparently survived.
The Colonial Secretary, Peter Broun, announced in June, 1839, that the island would be "converted to an Establishment for the Aborigines"; and, between 1838 and 1931 (except for the period from 1849 to 1855), Rottnest was used as an Aboriginal prison. Henry Vincent, the Gaoler at Fremantle, was put in charge of the establishment. A quadrangular building was constructed in 1863–64 and generally referred to as "the Quod"; it is used today for tourist accommodation. There were about twenty prisoners there in 1844; by 1880, there were 170. Vincent retired in 1867 after complaints regarding cruelty to prisoners; he was replaced by William Jackson. In the early 1880s, an influenza epidemic struck, killing about sixty inmates.
In 1902, the abolition of the prison was announced. At that time, there were 33 Aboriginal prisoners serving sentences there.
Some 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys were imprisoned there during the life of the establishment. There may be as many as 369 inmates' graves on the island; one writer has suggested that 95% of the deaths were from influenza. However Government records show that 1 in 10 male prisoners died from either disease, malnutrition or abuse from the prison guards. There has been numerous protests from local Aboriginal people for the Rottnest Island Authority to create a memorial recognising the events, deaths and unmarked graves which lie on Rottnest Island. The Rottnest Island Authority have not yet created the memorial, stating that it needs to be funded by the wider community.
Artifacts from this period continue to be identified and recorded, Professor Len Collard describes these artifacts like the glass and ceramic spear heads as an important demonstration of transitional cultural engineering through use of traditional methods to modify the new materials of European settlement.
A reformatory for boys was opened on 16 May 1881. The reformatory buildings were adjacent to the Quod and included a workshop, a kitchen, two large dormitories, a school room and four small cells. Carpenter John Watson constructed the buildings and became Reformatory Superintendent for the life of the establishment. Watson taught the boys carpentry, joinery and gardening.
In May 1898 two boys disappeared, apparently drowned, after escaping from the reformatory and stealing a dinghy.
After twenty years of operation, the facility closed on 21 September 1901 when the remaining 14 inmates were transferred to an industrial school on the mainland.
The reformatory buildings are now used as holiday accommodation as part of the Rottnest Lodge.
In 1856, the settlement structures – the two-storey prison/workshop building, stables, barns and piggery were burnt down. Their former locations are identified in the area between the shops in the settlement area. The fire was deliberately lit by the superintendent, Henry Vincent, after two prisoners had escaped into nearby bush. Vincent lit the fire with the intent of flushing the prisoners out of their hiding place. The prevailing winds at the time were blowing away from the buildings; however, the wind changed direction which brought the flames into the settlement. About 50 tons of hay was also destroyed.
Major bushfires have occurred in March 1894, January 1910, January 1917, March 1939 and February 1949.
In 1846 a Pilot service was established under Captain Edward Back. It continued for 56 years until 1903. The Pilot's and crews quarters were located in at least three of the colonial buildings identified in Colonial buildings of Rottnest Island — buildings 4, 5 and 6.
Rottnest was the site of internment camps in both World War I and World War II In World War I it was mostly used for German and Austrian suspected enemy aliens, and was closed towards the end of the war due to poor living conditions. The camp was sited near the present day Caroline Thomson Camping Area.
In World War II the camp was used exclusively for Italian enemy aliens and was situated near the airstrip. It had capacity for 120 internees.
It was closed about halfway through the war, and its occupants were sent to various other internment and work camps on the mainland.
Also during World War II, two 9.2-inch guns were installed near the middle of the island at Oliver Hill, and two 6-inch guns installed at Bickley Point, for defence of the Fremantle port. The location of the island was seen as being important to the defence of the important port of Fremantle, the major base for the Allies in the Indian Ocean, as bombardment of any attacking ships could be made from the island before the ships would come into range of the port.
A light railway was built from the jetty at Kingstown Barracks on Thomson Bay, to transport materiel and munitions to the guns. Captain (later Brigadier) Frank Bertram Hussey (1908–1985) was seconded from the Australian Staff Corps to oversee the construction of this. The military fixtures including the barracks and railway became known as the "Rottnest Island Fortress". A number of concrete lookouts and bunkers were built around the island also.
Near Wadjemup Lighthouse, a Battery Observation Post (BOP) was built as a lookout to coordinate aiming and firings from the Bickley and Oliver's Hill Batteries. A Signals Building, associated with the BOP and a Women's Army Barracks, built to house officers and staff who operated the BOP were constructed there also. The latter building is used nowadays for occasional accommodation for University and other scientific research groups working on the island.
After World War II the guns and infrastructure were decommissioned and parts of the railway removed. The 9.2-inch battery, however, was saved from disposal because the high cost of removing and shipping the guns to the mainland exceeded their value as scrap metal.
In the 1990s the gun emplacements and railway were extensively reconstructed, and since then a popular tourist activity has included a tour of the guns and the tunnels, with the journey to the battery being made on a purpose-built train from Kingstown Barracks. In November 2003 a new railcar was put into service for this route, called the Captain Hussey (named after Brigadier Hussey; see above). The railcar was built with volunteer assistance, and cost $171,500.
Prior to about 1880, communication with the mainland was primarily with semaphore flags and flares. A manned lookout at Bathurst Point included a signalling station which relayed shipping information between Wadjemup Lighthouse at the centre of the island and Arthur Head at Fremantle.
A heliograph was installed in 1879 at Signal Hill, the small rise overlooking the main settlement in Thomson Bay. A Frenchman by the name of Henri Courderot was the heliograph operator and was paid $10 per year to operate the service once a day weather permitting.
A single circuit submarine communications cable was laid from Cottesloe in 1900, after which the heliograph service was discontinued. This was replaced with a larger cable in 1935.
After Rottnest was proclaimed as an A-class Reserve in 1917, management was vested in the "Rottnest Island Board of Control" which continued until 1956. The first Chairman was Hal Colebatch, who served from 13 May 1917 to 23 July 1956. Rottnest Island was declared an A class reserve under the Permanent Reserves Act in May 1917. A Board was then appointed under the Parks and Reserves Act to control and manage the island (excluding the lighthouse and prison reserve). The Board of Control became a Body Corporate in 1956 and became a Board of Management.
Between 24 July 1956 and 29 May 1988 it was changed to the "Board of Management". Section 3, subsection 4 of the Parks and Reserves Act 1895–1955 provided legislative scope for the Rottnest Island Board of Control became a Body Corporate on 24 July 1956. The Rottnest Island Board of Control became the Rottnest Island Board of Management "with power to sue and be sued in its corporate name, to acquire, hold, lease and dispose of real and personal property, to borrow money with the approval of the Governor and to do and permit to be done all things which are required by the Act to the be done by the Board...". until 1988 at which time it became the Rottnest Island Authority came into being. During this time the managing instrumentality was informally and generally referred to as the "Rottnest Island Board" (RIB). In 1988 the current "Rottnest Island Authority" commenced operations.
Many coastal birds are frequently found in Rottnest. These include the pied cormorant, osprey, pied oystercatcher, silver gull, crested tern, fairy tern, bridled tern, rock parrot and the reef heron. The island salt lakes contain brine shrimp which support birds such as the red-necked avocet, banded stilt, ruddy turnstone, curlew sandpiper, red-capped dotterel, Australian shelduck, red-necked stint, grey plover, white-fronted chat, Caspian tern and the crested tern. Several pairs of osprey nest at Rottnest each year; one nest at Salmon Point is estimated to be 70 years old. Introduced peafowl are often seen near the main settlement.
The island has been identified by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA) because it supports important breeding populations of the fairy terns (200-300 breeding pairs), over 1% of the non-breeding population of banded stilts (with up to 20,000 birds) and regionally significant numbers of wedge-tailed shearwaters and red-necked stints.
Rottnest is one of the few areas in the world where the native quokka can be found. Its survival there is largely due to the exclusion of natural or introduced predators.
Reptiles include dugite (Pseudonaja affinis), the southern blind snake (Ramphotyphlops australis), king's skink (Egernia kingii), bobtail (Tiliqua rugosa), marbled gecko (Christinus marmoratus), west coast ctenotus (Ctenotus fallens) and Burton's legless lizard (Lialis burtonis). There are three species of frogs: the moaning frog (Heleioporus eyrei), the western green tree frog (Litoria moorei) and the sign-bearing froglet (Crinia insignifera).
With the extensive reefs surrounding the island, many species of fish, crustaceans, and coral can be found. Cetaceans such as bottlenose dolphins, and migrating humpbacks and southern rights are occasionally seen, and the Perth Canyon off the island is one of main habitats for blue whales in Australia. A colony of Australian sea lions reside at Dyer Island and a colony of New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri) reside at Cathedral Rocks.
The island includes three endemic woodland tree species, the Rottnest Island pine (Callitris preissii), the Rottnest Island teatree (Melaleuca lanceolata) and Acacia rostellifera. The Rottnest Island daisy (Trachymene coerulea) is a commonly occurring flowering native which is also grown widely as an ornamental garden plant. Coastal dune flora include searocket (Cakile), beach spinifex (Spinifex longifolius) and wild rosemary (Olearia axillaris).
A Pinus radiata plantation was established by internees during World War I, roughly bordering the main settlement, The Basin and Bathurst. Plantation remnants can be seen around the golf course.
Rottnest was often described as heavily wooded by early explorers. Nearly 200 years of farmland clearing, firewood collection and bushfires has denuded much of the 19 square kilometres of large trees, and a fragile and fresh water scarce environment has limited natural recovery. A conservation program including reforestation is ongoing. An island-based nursery propagates plants with island provenance used in the reforestation program and in remediating uncontrolled beach access.
Rottnest Island has a Mediterranean climate with warm dry summers and mild wet winters. Although the summers get little rain, they are humid.
The island became largely devoted to recreational use from the 1900s, aside from a brief period of exclusive military use during World War II. It is now visited annually by 450,000 to 500,000 visitors, an average of 330,000 of those arriving by ferry or air taxi. 70% of all visitors come for the day only. The majority of visitors arrive in summer, with nearly 20% of all visitors coming in January.
The only vehicles permitted on the island are emergency and service vehicles. Cycling is the transport of choice for most visitors, with many either bringing a bicycle with them or hiring one at the island's facility.
The main settlement is located at Thomson Bay, which is a protected north-easterly bay facing the mainland. Other settlements are located at Geordie Bay and Longreach Bay on the northern side of the island. All are sheltered bays and well suited for boating and swimming. Many other bays around the island have permanent boat moorings which can be leased from the Rottnest Island Authority. The island has accommodation for up to 5,500 visitors, while day-only visitors can number up to 20,000 at any one time. Rottnest Island Authority accommodation options include 291 villas, units and cottages which sleep 4, 6 or 8 people and which are self-catering. This style of accommodation is reasonably basic. Demand for accommodation is very high during the summer months, with ballots held annually for accommodation during the January and Easter school holiday periods. Following introduction of online booking and checker ballots have now become a thing of the past.
Other accommodation options include group accommodation at Kingstown Barracks, the Hotel Rottnest (formerly called the "Quokka Arms Hotel" and prior to that the Governor's residence), the Rottnest Lodge (Karma Group). A landscaped 40 site camping ground has just been reopened complete with ablution block and camp kitchen facilities. Cabins at Caroline Thomson provide an alternative to camping and are popular with families, sleeping up to 6 with self-contained cooking and washing facilities.
Most visitors arrive on one of the ferries from Fremantle, Perth, and Hillarys. These are operated by Rottnest Express and Rottnest Fast Ferries. Rottnest Island Airport for light aircraft (YRTI) is located near the main settlement.
The island is popular destination with Year-12 school leavers celebrating the end of their exams each November — known in Western Australia as "Leavers week" or just "Leavers" — RIA accommodation on the island is reserved for leavers during this time. Identification and proof of being a current secondary school leaver is required to book accommodation during this period.
Catering facilities in the Thomson Bay foreshore area include a Dome coffee shop, Aristos Waterfront seafood restaurant; Quokka Joes; Rottnest Lodge and the Hotel Rottnest. The main settlement has a general store, including a liquor outlet, a bakery, cafe/coffee shop, Subway and clothing store. The Red Rooster store closed in 2011. The Lodge includes several restaurants and bars also. Geordie Bay also has a general store, liquor outlet and Geordie Cafe.
A luxury hotel was planned for the island but negotiations with preferred proponents ceased. The Authority states that "The development of a new hotel at Mount Herschel remains a priority.".
The island was the site of an important Australian High Court case. Nagle v Rottnest Island Authority (1993) 177 CLR 423 arose after a man, dove off a rock on Rottnest Island and became a quadriplegic. It was held that, as the island authority had promoted the site as a venue for swimming and had not put up a warning notice, it was liable for causing the injury.
Diving is a popular activity at Rottnest. Its varied limestone reef terrain, and plentiful fish make it an interesting diving destination. In particular, diving for crayfish Western rock lobster, is popular in the summer months. The season opens on 15 November each year, and runs until 30 June. Crayfish may be caught in special traps or "pots", or when diving either by hand or by using a crayfish "loop". The loop is a spring-loaded steel cable attached to a long pole. It is illegal to use any means that might puncture the shell to catch the crayfish. The bag limit is 6 per licence per day, with a maximum of 12 per boat per day.
A snorkel trail at Parker Point features underwater interpretative plaques that give information about the marine environments surrounding Rottnest. The island is the southernmost point along the Western Australian coastline at which coral grows. The Rottnest Island Wreck Trail was developed in conjunction with the Western Australian Museum in 1980 as the first underwater interpretative trail in the southern hemisphere. Visits to some of the Rottnest Island shipwrecks, in essence a museum-without-walls can be made by glass bottomed boat, or by scuba and snorkel. The SS Macedon site is one of the most visited wrecks in Australia.
The island features historic buildings and pleasant beaches (all reachable via the many cycling tracks; cycling being the island's main mode of transport – private or hire cars are not allowed on the island).
Ferry services are provided from Perth and Fremantle by Rottnest Express and Rottnest Fast Ferries from Hillarys Boat Harbour.
Bus services on the island were previously operated by the Rottnest Island Authority under the Island Explorer brand. In November 2015, Adams Coachlines commenced a 10-year contract to operate all bus services.
Rottnest Island has few permanent residents, with most island workers commuting from the mainland.
As Rottnest is isolated from the mainland, and has no fresh surface water, providing water, power and waste disposal has always been difficult and expensive. In 1996 Rottnest introduced the first public place recycling program in Western Australia. In 2000 the island won the 3R awards (reduce, reuse and recycle). A daily supply barge — Spinifex — makes a return trip from Fremantle, delivering supplies and removing rubbish.
For many years during the twentieth century, the water supply was rainwater harvested from several large bitumen sealed catchment areas behind Longreach Bay. In the 1970s fresh water was found underground and was used to supplement the rainfall supply. In 1995 the supply was further supplemented with desalinated groundwater, using a reverse osmosis plant producing up to 500 kL per day.
Experimental wind turbines were commissioned in 1978; however, high maintenance requirements and excessive power generation resulted in Diesel remaining the main power source. In 2004 a new 600 kW wind-Diesel system was erected; other works at the time included upgrades to the power station and the installation of low load Diesel generators. The wind turbine delivers approximately 37% of Rottnest's power requirements and saves over 400,000 litres of Diesel fuel per year.
Two fully automated lighthouses operate on the island to aid passing maritime traffic: Bathurst Lighthouse and Wadjemup Lighthouse. An extensive network of flashing markers and transit beacons indicate safe passages through the rocky entrances to bays.
Volunteering has been a part of the scene on Rottnest Island since the Winnit Club began working here in the Summer of 1930–1931. Other volunteer organizations have included the Rottnest Island Foundation, the Rottnest Society, and the Rottnest Voluntary Guides Association. Tasks vary, including guided tours, tree planting, litter collection, and the building of access boardwalks and stairs. The RIA employs a full-time volunteer coordinator. Rottnest Island Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services (RIVFRS), this brigade is a 'private brigade' where the RIA funds critical funding to allow the brigade to function. The brigade is trained to be first response to any emergency on the island assisted by agencies on and off the island. Most of the Members are Working Residents in Volunteering roles.