Chesterfield Islands

Chesterfield Islands
Chesterfield Islands
Chesterfield Islands from space

Chesterfield Islands (îles Chesterfield in French) is a french archipelago of New Caledonia located in the Coral Sea, 550 km northwest of Grande Terre the main island of New Caledonia. Chesterfield Islands are a 120 km long and 70 km broad structure composed with 11 islets and many reefs. The land area of the islands is less than 10 km² [1].

Bellona Reef, 60 km southeast of Chesterfied is geologically separarated from the Chesterfield archipelago but commonly included.



The Chesterfield Reefs or Islands, and sometimes Group, are the most important of a number of uninhabited coral sand cays, some still awash and liable to shift with the wind and others stabilized by the growth of grass, creepers and low trees, lying on a series of reefs comprising the Chesterfield Reefs and extending from 19˚ to 22˚S between 158–160˚E in the southern Coral Sea halfway between Australia and New Caledonia. The Chesterfield Reefs are now part of the territory of New Caledonia while the islands farther west are now part of the Australian Coral Sea Islands Territory.

Chesterfield lagoon which is located between 19˚00' and 20˚30' latitude south and 158˚10' and 159˚ longitude east covers an area of about approximately 3500 km2. This lagoon is surrounded by a barrier reef interrupted by wide passes except on its eastern side where it is open for over 20 nautical miles (37 km). The major part of the lagoon is exposed to trade winds and to the south eastern oceanic swell. The lagoon is relatively deep with a mean depth of 51 m. The depth increases from south to north where maximum soundings are reached

Chesterfield Reefs complex consists of The Bellona reef complex to the south (South, Middle and N.W Bellona reef) and the Brampton Reef complex. They include the following main islet generally from the south to the north:

Chesterfield Reefs

Bellona Reefs

Minerva Shoal

Chesterfield Reefs

The Avon Isles

Bampton Reefs

Bellona Reefs

Bellona Reefs
South Bellona Reefs

South Bellona Reef or West Point 21°52′S 159°25′E / 21.867°S 159.417°E / -21.867; 159.417 (Bellona Reefs - West Point), Approximately 3 m tall sand islet. In the neighbourhood of Booby and Bellona Shoals and reefs, Lieutenant John Lamb, R.N., Commander of the ship Baring, was embarrassed for three days, in which interval he was sounding in between nineteen and forty-five fathoms, and frequently passed shoal parts, upon which the sea was breaking. The limits assigned by this officer to the extent of the rocky ground, are the parallels of 20 degrees 40 minutes, and 21 degrees 50 minutes, and the meridians of 158 degrees 15 minutes and 159 degrees 30 minutes. A sandy islet was also seen by him, surrounded by a chain of rocks at 21°24½' minutes south and 158°30' east. The ship Minerva also struck soundings in eight fathoms, with the appearance of shoaler water to the southwest; this last danger is in a line between the two shoals in about longitude 159°20' east as described by James Horsburgh [1]

Observatory Cay 21°24′S 158°51′E / 21.4°S 158.85°E / -21.4; 158.85 (Bellona Reefs - Observatory Cay), 800 m long and 2 m high, lies on the Middle Bellona Reefs at the southern end of the Chesterfield Reefs and 180 nm east of Kenn Reef.

Minerva Shoal

Not to be confused with Minerva Reefs, south of Fiji and Tonga.

Chesterfield Reefs

The Chesterfield Reefs is a loose collection of elongated reefs that enclose a deep, semi-sheltered, lagoon. The reefs on the west and northwest are known as the Chesterfield Reefs; with those on the east and north being the Bampton Reefs. The Chesterfield Reefs form a structure measuring 120 km in length (northeast to southwest) and 70 km across (east to west).

There are numerous cays occurring amongst the reefs of both the Chesterfield and Bampton Reefs, these include: Loop Islet, Renard Cay, Skeleton Cay, Bennett Island, Passage Islet, Long Island, the Avon Isles, the Anchorage Islets and Bampton Island.

Long Island 19°53′S 158°19′E / 19.883°S 158.317°E / -19.883; 158.317 (Chesterfield Reefs - Long Island), 10 nm NW of Loop Islet, is the largest of the Chesterfield Islands, and is 1400 to 1800 m long but no more than 100 m across and 9 m high. In May l859, Henry Mangles Denham found Long Island was “a heap of “foraminifera” densely covered with stunted bush‑trees with leaves as large as cabbage plants, spreading 12 feet (3.7 m) and reaching as high, upon trunks 9 inches (23 cm) diameter... The trees around the margin of this island were leafless, as if from the sea‑fowl. But as history goes although wooded in the 1850s, it was stripped during guano extraction in the 1870s and was said to be covered in grass with only two coconut trees and some ruins at the south end early in the last century. The vegetation was growing again by 1957 when the remaining ruins were confused with those of a temporary automatic meteorological station established in the same area by the Americans between 1944 and 1948. Terry Walker reported that by 1990 there was a ring of low Tournefortia trees growing around the margin, herbs, grass and shrubs in the interior, and still a few exotic species including coconuts.

One-to-three nautical miles south of Long Island and Loop Islet there are three small low islets up to 400 m across followed, after a narrow channel, by Passage or Bennett Island, which is 12 m high and was a whaling station in the first half of the last century. Several sand cays lie on the reef southeast of the islet.

Avon Isles

The two Avon Isles 19°32′S 158°15′E / 19.533°S 158.25°E / -19.533; 158.25 (Avon Isles),some 188 m in diameter and 5 m high to the top of the dense vegetation, are situated 21 n.m. north of Long Island. The AVON ISLES they were seen by Mr. Sumner, Master of the ship Avon, September 18, 1823; and are described by him as being three-quarters of a mile in circumference, twenty feet high, and the sea between them twenty fathoms deep. At four miles (7 km) northeast by north from them the vessel sounded in twelve fathoms, and at the same time saw a reef ten or fifteen miles (20–30 km) to the southeast, with deep water between it and the islets. A boat landed on the south-westernmost islet, and found it inhabited only by birds, but clothed with shrubs and wild grapes. By observation, these islands were found to lie in latitude 19 degrees 40 minutes, and longitude 158 degrees 6 minutes. The Avon Isles as described by Denham in 1859 as “densely covered with stunted trees and creeping plants and grass, and... crowded with the like species of birds"

Bampton Reefs

Renard Island North Bampton Reef 19°14′S 158°58′E / 19.233°S 158.967°E / -19.233; 158.967 (Bampton Reefs - Renard Island), Approximately 6 m (20 ft) tall sand islet lies 45 nmi (83 km) northeast of the Avon Isles and is 273 m (896 ft) long, 180 m (590 ft) across and also 6 m (20 ft) high to the top of the bushes.

Southeast Bampton Reef 19°08′S 158°40′E / 19.133°S 158.667°E / -19.133; 158.667 (Southeast Bampton Reef) Sand Cay 5 m (16 ft) elevation

Loop Islet 19°59′S 158°28′E / 19.983°S 158.467°E / -19.983; 158.467 (Loop Islet), which lies 85 nm farther north near the south end of the central islands of Chesterfield Reefs, is a small, flat, bushy islet 3 m high where a permanent automatic weather station was established by the Service Météorologique de Nouméa in October 1968. Terry Walker reported the presence of a grove of Casuarinas in 1990.

Anchorage Islets are a group of islets five nautical miles (9 km) north of Loop Islet. The third from the north, about 400 m long and 12 m high, shelters the best anchorage.

Passage (Bonnet) Island reaches a vegative height of 12 m

Bampton Island (19°07′S 158°36′E / 19.117°S 158.6°E / -19.117; 158.6 (Bampton Island), lies on Bampton Reefs 20 nm NW of Renard Island. It is 180 m long, 110 m across and 5 m high. It had trees when discovered in 1793, but has seldom been visited since then except by castaways.

The reefs and islands west of the Chesterfield Islands, the closest being Mellish Reef with Herald’s Beacon Islet at 17°25′S 155°52′E / 17.417°S 155.867°E / -17.417; 155.867 (Herald’s Beacon Islet), at a distance of 180 nm northwest of Bampton Island, belong to the Coral Sea Islands Territory.


Booby Reef in the centre of the eastern chain of reefs and islets comprising Chesterfield Reefs appears to have been discovered first by Lt. Henry Lidgbird Ball in HMS Supply on the way from Sydney to Batavia (modern day Jakarta)in 1790. The reefs to the south were found next by Mathew Boyd in the convict ship Bellona on his way from Sydney to Canton (modern day Guangzhou) in February March 1793. The following June, William Wright Bampton became embayed for five days in the reefs at the north end of Chesterfield Reefs in the Indiaman Shah Hormuzeer with Mathew Bowes Alt in the whaler Chesterfield, and reported two islets with trees and “a number of birds of different species around the ships, several of them the same kind as at Norfolk Island”.

The reefs continued to present a hazard to shipping plying between Australia and Canton or India (where cargo was collected on the way home to Europe) and in due course the southern reefs were surveyed by Captain H.M. Denham (1860) in the Herald 1858–60, who made natural history notes discussed below, and the northern ones by Lt G.E.Richards in HMS Renard in 1878 and the French the following year. Denham’s conclusions are engraved on British Admiralty Chart 349:“These Plans and a mast‑head Lookout will enable a Ship to round to under the lee of the Reefs where she may caulk topsides, set up rigging, rate Chronometers, [and] obtain turtle, fish and seafowl eggs. On some of the more salient reefs, beacons were erected by Captn Denham, and for the sake of castaways, cocoa‑nuts, shrubs, grasses & every description of seed likely to grow, were sown in the way to promote the superstructure; and it is most desirable that these Refuge‑ spots should be held sacred for universal benefit and not ruthlessly destroyed by the Guano‑seeker.”

The area was also visited by increasing numbers of whalers during the off season in New Zealand in search of the many wintering Humpbacked and fewer Sperm Whales in the middle of the 19th century. Thiercelin (1866) reports that in July 1863 the islets only had two or three plants, including a bush 3 4 m high, and were frequented by turtles weighing 60 to 100 kg. Many eggs were being taken regularly by several English, two French and one American whaler. On another occasion there were no less than eight American whalers (Moniteur de la Nouvelle Calédonie, 5 July 1863). A collection of birds said to have been made by Surgeon Jourde of the French whaler Général d’Hautpoul on the Brampton Shoals in July 1861 was subsequently brought by Gerard Krefft (1862) to the Australian Museum, but clearly not all the specimens came from there.

On 27 October 1862, the British Government granted an exclusive concession to exploit the guano on Lady Elliot Island, Wreck Reef, Swain Reefs, Raine Island, Bramble Cay, Brampton Shoal, and Pilgrim Island to the Anglo Australian Guano Company organised by the whaler, Dr. William Crowther in Hobart, Tasmania. They were apparently most active on Bird Islet (Wreck Reef) and Lady Elliot and Raine Islands (Hutchinson, 1950), losing five ships at Bird Islet between 1861 and 1882 (Crowther 1939). It is not clear that they ever took much guano from the Chesterfield Islands unless it was obtained from Higginson, Desmazures et Cie, discussed below.

When in 1877 Joshua William North also found guano on the Chesterfield Reefs, Alcide Jean Desmazures persuaded Governor Orly of New Caledonia to send the warship La Seudre to annex them. There were estimated to be about 185,000 cu m of guano on Long Island and a few hundred tons elsewhere, and 40 to 62% phosphate (Chevron, 1880), which was extracted between 1879 and 1888 by Higginson, Desmazures et Cie of Nouméa (Godard, nd), leaving Long Island stripped bare for a time (Anon., 1916).

Apparently the islands were then abandoned until Commander Arzur in the French warship Dumont d’Urville surveyed the Chesterfield Reefs and erected a plaque in 1939. In September 1944, American forces installed a temporary automatic meteorological station at the south end of Long Island, which was abandoned again at the end of World War II. The first biological survey was made of Long Island by Cohic (1959) during four hours ashore on 26 September 1957. It revealed among other things a variety of avian parasites including a widespread Ornithodoros tick belonging to a genus carrying arboviruses capable of causing illness in man. This island and the Anchorage Islets were also visited briefly during a survey of New Caledonian coral reefs in 1960 and 1962.

An aerial magnetic survey was made of the Chesterfield area in 1966, and a seismic survey in 1972, which apparently have not been followed up yet. In November 1968 another automatic meteorological station was installed on Loop Islet where 10 plants were collected by A.E. Ferré. Since then the Centre de Nouméa of the Office de la Réchèrche Scientifique et Technique Outre Mer has arranged for periodic surveys and others when this installation is serviced.

Since 1982, Terry Walker had been carrying out methodical surveys of the Coral Sea islets with the intention of producing a seabird atlas, including a visit to the central islands of the Chesterfield Reefs in December 1990.

Known Shipwrecks on the Reef

Chesterfield. Ship. Gave its name to Chesterfield reef, Pacific Ocean. [Loney]

Clarence. Whaling brig, 120 tons. Built at Clarence River, NSW, 1841; reg. Sydney 46/1841. Lbd 68 x 19.2 x 11 feet. Captain McCardell. Lost on the Chesterfield Bank, near the Bampton Shoals, 9 June 1844. After a voyage of 600 nautical miles (1,100 km) in four boats the crew reached safety although some of the crew were speared when they landed on the Queensland coast in search of water. The whaleer Woodlark assisted in the rescue of one of the boats. The schooner Elizabeth was lost attempting to salvage the Clarence the following year. [Loney][ASW1]

Eillan Donan. Brigantine, 270 tons. Built 1863; reg. Auckland. Believed lost on Chesterfield Reefs, Lost late December 1893. [Loney]. Vessel likely to be named for the home of the clan McRae, Eilean Donan Castle this is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland,

Elizabeth Schooner Lost 1844 on Chesterfield Bank, near the Bampton Shoals, Coral Sea While attempting to salvage the wreck of the Clarence the Elizabeth was driven out to sea while most of her crew were working on the wreck. She was never seen again. The crew reached Moreton Bay Qld by longboat on 26 March 1845.

Euromedha. Barque, 345 tons. Built Sunderland, England, 1868. Struck the eastern edge of Bampton Reef and sank rapidly, 2 October 1869. Crew saved. [Loney]

Hamlet’s Ghost. Small vessel built from the salvaged timbers from the whaling schooner Prince of Denmark, recked on Chesterfield reef in 1863. [Holthouse]

Isabella. Barque, 734 tons. Built Sunderland 1860 159 x 32.2 x 21 Master Captain Smith. Wrecked on Chesterfield Reef, 4 July 1875.on route from Newcastle NSW (departed 26 June) to Hong Kong Crew of 16 with an additional 17 Chinese passengers on board as well as 800 tons of coal, she was wrecked on Chesterfield Reef. One boat containing the captain and nine men set out for the mainland, six landed on an island and decided to await rescue while the seventeen Chinese passengers remained at the wreck. The captain’s boat was rescued by the Currambene and taken to Bowan Queensland but the other survivors were apparently forgotten. On 2 January, 1876, the Laura Lind found only three of the six remaining white men alive when the schooner called at the island. Of the Chinese, ten were drowned, one died of starvation and one committed suicide because he could not obtain any opium. The Marine Board of Queensland found a fault in the chonometers had caused an error of more than 60 nautical miles (110 km) in the position of the ship and the master exonerated [Loney]

Jessie. Wooden Barquentine, 247 tons 124 x 25.1 x 12.8. During a cyclone on the 18 February 1893, she was forced ashore at Long island in the Chesterfield Group while loading guano for Launceston TAS. Dangerous conditions forced her crew to seek shelter on the island, and when the weather cleared all that remained of their vessel were a few pieces of wreckage. The master and crew reach Nouméa in one of the boats [Loney]

Madeira Packet. Schooner, 108 tons. Captain Arnold. Left Sydney for New Zealand on a whaling cruise, on 4 September 1831; wrecked on Bampton Reefs, north of the Chesterfield Reefs, 575 nautical miles (1,065 km) due east of Bowen, Queensland, December 1831. The crew took to three boats; two it safely to Moreton Bay, the third disappeared. It appears that Captain Arnold had died on board before her loss. [Loney]

Prince of Denmark. Schooner, whaler, 69 tons. Built in 1789. Captain J.B. Bennett. Wrecked during a gale while approaching Chesterfield Reef, Pacific Ocean, 19 March 1863. The crew used the remains of the whaler to build a new boat, (which they called Hamlet’s Ghost), then set sail for Brisbane, leaving eleven native members of the crew on the reef with provisions for about eighteen months. They made Moreton bay on 17 June. The boat was later converted to a pleasure yacht. (No record of what happened to the eleven natives). [Loney] [ Holthouse]

Siskin. Wooden Ketch, 41 tons Built Balmain NSW 1884 61.3 x 17.6 x 5.5. Left Brisbane on a voyage to the Solomon Islands Lost on the Chesterfield Group in the Coral Sea, early November 1896. [Loney]

Tamar. Barque. Lost near Chesterfield Reefs, Pacific Ocean, 1870. [Loney]

Venture. Schooner, 54 tons Built 1875 65.4 x 20.8 x 7. Lost on Chesterfield Reefs, GBR, August 1879. [Loney]

Waireta. Schooner, 99 tons built 1884 and registered at Auckland New Zealand. 21 May 1892. While landing machinery at Long Island, Chesterfield Group she parted her cables in heavy weather and went ashore. A court of inquiry decided that she would not have been lost if she had been better found in ground tackle.[Loney]

Borough Belle Wooden Brigantine 210 tons built Sydney 1875 103.8 x 24.1 x 11.8 Brigantine stuck Bellona Reef 30 Jan 1894 She had been badly damaged by gales, she was run ashore onto Bellona Reefs to save life on a voyage from Solomon Islands to Sydney. The crew remained at the wreck until 3 February, then set out for Australia. At an inquiry the master and part owner John Williams was commended for his able seamanship.[Loney]

Henry Miller Barque Dec 1868 Reported lost near Bellona Reef in December

Peruvian Barque Feb/Mar 1846 Minerva or Bellona Reefs, ~500 miles off the Qld coast Carrying a load of timber, battered by heavy weather and wrecked on the reefs.

Sarah S. Ridgeway Wooden barque 831 tons American Registered at Wilmington USA on the 29 Jan 1895 Bellona Reef American barque was lost on Bellona Reef in the Coral Seawhile on her way from Newcastle to Singapore with Coal. There was no loss of life and the crew landed at Burnett Heads Qld.[Loney]

Thule 10 Oct 1844 Bellona Reefs (?) Whaler American whaler, Capt. Coffin, from Nantucket, 27 months at sea with 1050 barrels of sperm oil, struck a shoal believed to be part of Belonna Reef (?) on 10 Oct 1844.


  1. ^ Sailing to and from the East Indies, China, New Holland, Cape of Good Hope, and the interjacent Ports, compiled chiefly from original Journals and Observations made during 21 years' experience in navigating those SeasSupp. page 35

Alt, M.B. (ms). Log of the Chesterfield. British Library, Stowe MS 794

Bampton, W.W. (ms). Log of the Shah Hormuzeer. Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, Ad. Lib., MSS 72/12

Boyd, M. (ms). Log of the Bellona. The British Library, Oriental and India Office Collection.

Denham, H.M. (ms). Journal of HMS Herald: UK Hydrographic Office (Taunton) OD l3, copies UK Hydrographic Office OD 90, The National Archives Adm 55/73. Chart: UK Hydrographic Office D 6149 on 39d (or an adjacent number).

Denham, H.M. 1860. Outer route from Sydney to Torres Strait‑ Proceedings of HMS Herald, Captain H.M.Denham, extract of a letter to Captain Washington RN, Hydrographer to the Admiralty. The Nautical Magazine 29:169‑173.

Findlay, A. 1851. A Directory for the Navigation of the Pacific Ocean, London.

Flinders, M. 1814. A Voyage to Terra Australis in the years 1801, 1802 and 1803. London, G. and W. Nicol.

  • 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

Thiercelin, L. 1866. Journal d’un Baleinier: voyages en océanie. Hachette, Paris, vol. 1:211‑233.

External links

Coordinates: 19°21′S 158°40′E / 19.35°S 158.667°E / -19.35; 158.667

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