Australian Maritime Safety Authority

Quick guide - Navigation through the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait

Key obligations

The safety of shipping depends on all parties having detailed knowledge of, and complying with, regulatory and other obligations and duties imposed on them.  

Navigation and safety

This quick guide highlights key obligations of shipmasters transiting through the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait, but does not contain all regulatory and other obligations and duties of vessel owners/operators, masters and crew.

Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSA)

In 1990, the Great Barrier Reef became the world’s first Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) designated by the International Maritime Organization.

The area was extended to the Torres Strait in 2005.

PSSAs allow additional protection measures such as ship routeing systems to be applied to vessels that transit the region.

Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA).

Current Fact Sheet:
Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas

Particularly Sensitive Sea Area

Coastal pilotage

Vessels with a overall length of 70 metres or more, and all loaded oil tankers, chemical carriers and liquefied gas carriers irrespective of length, are required to use the services of a licensed coastal pilot in these compulsory coastal pilotage areas:

  • Inner Route (from Cape York to Cairns)
  • Great North East Channel
  • Torres Strait
  • Hydrographer’s Passage
  • Whitsundays

The presence of a pilot does not relieve the Master from their overall responsibility for the safe operation of the vessel.

Read more a about coastal pilotage.

Current Marine Notices:
2015/10 Coastal Pilotage
2016/03 Under Keel Clearance Management System

Coastal Pilotage areas

Passage Plan

Prior to each voyage the Master must make sure that the intended route from the port of departure to the first port of call is planned using adequate and appropriate charts and other nautical publications.

The Queensland Coastal Passage Plan (QCPP) has been developed for the benefit of Masters and mates of ships transiting the region.

The QCPP improves the preparedness of ships transiting the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait pilotage areas by making sure that voyage plans, waypoints and other planing considerations have been completed in a standardised manner.

Ship Masters are encouraged to prepare their voyage plans using the QCPP.

Read more about the Queensland Coastal Passage Plan.

Current Marine Notices:
2015/16 IMO-adopted ships’ routeing systems to be introduced in the Coral Sea
2014/17 Sound navigational practices
Media Release

Passage Plan


The Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service (REEFVTS) was established in 2004 as a mechanism to improve the safety and efficiency of vessel movements and to help protect the marine environment.

Masters of the following kinds of vessels must report to REEFVTS:

  1. a vessel with a length overall of at least 50 metres
  2. an oil tanker
  3. chemical tanker
  4. vessel carrying at least 200 m3 of oil, whether the oil is cargo or for use by the vessel
  5. vessel to which the INF Code applies
  6. vessel engaged in towing or pushing
  7. it or the vessel being towed or pushed is a vessel mentioned in point (1), (2), (3), (4) or (5)
  8. if the length of tow is at least 150 metres.

REEFVTS is operated under joint Australian and Queensland Government arrangements between the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ).

MSQ is the VTS Authority responsible for REEFVTS in accordance with Marine Order 64 and operates the VTS 24 hours a day from the VTS Centre at Townsville.

Information about the operation of REEFVTS and reporting requirements is available at the MSQ website.

Read more about REEFVTS.


Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Services user guide

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Designated Shipping Area

Vessels may only navigate within the Designated Shipping Area (DSA) or the General Use Zones of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

To navigate outside of the areas, a permit must be obtained from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA).

More information on the DSA is available from GBRMPA and is provided in the Seafarers Handbook for Australian Waters (AHP20). This publication should be carried when navigating in the GBR.

Read more about the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Designated Shipping Area.

Designated Shipping Area

Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Services user guide

Defect and incident reporting

Masters and/or owners are required to comply with Ship Safety and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) reporting requirements. This includes reports of the following events and events that could have resulted in:

  1. incidents, including:
    • death or serious injury to a person
    • collision, grounding or loss of a vessel
    • loss of a person from the vessel
    • fire, structural failure, flooding or machinery failure on board
    • loss of cargo of a vessel
  2. dangers to navigation
  3. incidents involving failure of ship’s material handling equipment or injury to any person when engaged in cargo work
  4. MARPOL reporting for harmful substances or marine pollutant.

Find out more about defect and incident reporting.

AMSA Forms:
Incident Alert and Reports (AMSA Form 18 and AMSA Form 19)
MARPOL for harmful substances or marine pollutant (AMSA Form 197 or AMSA Form 196)


Disposal of garbage

Discharge of waste including cargo residues, whether or not they are harmful to the marine environment, is prohibited within the Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Strait.

This is because the nearest land boundary extends around the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Strait.

Discharges permitted under MARPOL must be measured seaward of this boundary.

Find out more about the disposal of garbage.

Current Fact Sheets:
Disposal of Solid Bulk Cargo Residues in Australian Waters


Charts and publications

Using adequate and up-to-date nautical charts and publications is critical to safe ship operations and protection of the marine environment.

Relying on unofficial charts demonstrates inadequate voyage planning under a ship's safety management system, as well as indicating a ship may be in an unfit state for the voyage, or posing a threat to the environment.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) will detain vessels that do not carry adequate and up-to-date nautical charts. Please refer to this AMSA Media Release: Appeals tribunal upholds AMSA ship detention decision.

Current and official nautical charts and publications may be obtained from the Australian Hydrographic Service.

Current Marine Notices:
2014/17 Sound navigational practices
2014/16 Official nautical charts


Fitness for duty

Ship operators and Masters have an obligation to make sure the watchkeeping arrangements on board comply with international convention requirements requirements and that regulation 2.3 of the ILO MLC requirements are met for all seafarers on board the vessel.

Port State Control inspections will include checks for compliance with the records of work and rest, and other on board documents.

AMSA will issue deficiencies and detentions due to identified issues with work hours. These broadly fall within these categories:

  • hours of rest not being complied with in port resulting in watchkeeping personnel on duty for departures and first sea watches not being adequately rested
  • records of hours of work/rest not being maintained
  • records of hours of work/rest not reflecting actual working arrangements
  • deficiencies in the Safety Management System of the ship that hinder compliance.

Current Marine Notices:
2014/18 Maximum period for shipboard service for seafarers
2012/09 Fitness for duty
Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 Guide


Port State Control

Through Port State Control (PSC) inspections, AMSA monitors and enforces compliance of ships in Australian waters with internationally agreed standards for seaworthiness, safety and pollution prevention.

Read more about Port State Control.

Current Fact Sheets:
Port State Control in Australia

Great Barrier Reef ports where AMSA conducts ship inspections

North East Shipping Management Plan (NESMP)

With shipping movements in Australia's north east region expected to grow, the North East Shipping Management Plan (NESMP) has been jointly developed by Queensland and other Australian Government agencies in conjunction with industry and key interest groups.

The plan contains proposed measures that may be used to manage future increases in shipping traffic, ensure the safety of shipping and the prevention of ship sourced pollution and other environmental impacts in the Great Barrier Reef, Torres Strait and Coral Sea regions.

Find out more about the North East Shipping Management Plan (NESMP).

North East Shipping Management Plan

Collision with cetaceans

Collision with cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) is a growing concern. Ship strikes can increase the risk of death and injury to animals, and damage property.

Humpback whales are present in the Great Barrier Reef region from May to September. 

Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), all cetaceans are protected in Australian Commonwealth waters (generally between 3 and 200 nautical miles from the coastline). The legislation applies to all vessels. 

If a vessel collides with a cetacean in Australia’s Commonwealth waters, the person in charge of the vessel is required by law to notify the Department of the Environment.

Ship masters and watch-keeping officers are urged to:

  • maintain a good look out
  • warn other vessels in the vicinity if whales have been sighted, using all appropriate means of communication
  • consider reducing vessel speed in areas where whales have been sighted
  • consider modest course alterations away from sightings.

Find out about reporting a ship strike.

AMSA MN 12 of 2011
IMO Circular MEPC.1/Circ.674

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