In a remote little branch of Darwin Harbour, there is one of those little islands that looks overdeveloped and uninspiring. However, it is actually a place we love at marine life HQ, small and inconspicuous but with a rich human and natural history.
For many thousands of years the Larrakia traditional owners have used Channel Island as an occasional hunting and camping place. Even when I visited the island recently, a group of Larrakia were fishing there, only now with the addition of a Landcruiser and solar panels for the telly. Europeans didn’t take much interest in this small mangrove studded island until it was chosen for a Commonwealth quarantine station in 1914. Vessels entering the harbour would stop near the island to offload passengers until they were cleared as disease free.
Leprosy (Hansen’s disease) was first found among Chinese settlers to the Northern Territory in 1882. By 1884 the first cases among Aboriginal people were identified. Chinese immigrants with the disease were confined on Mud Island in the middle of Darwin Harbour, but for many years, no-one did anything to help Aboriginal sufferers. In the late 1931 the Northern Territory administration decided to confine and isolate everyone who had contracted the disease. The Channel Island site was thought to be ideal for discouraging escapes. At first the Channel Island institution was staffed by state employees, then by the Catholic church. Buildings were makeshift, fresh water and food scarce, and sufferers got almost no treatment. It was a dumping ground for 443 leprosy sufferers. At least 142 died and were buried on the island. Most buildings were salvaged for removal to Bathurst Island on the depot’s closure in 1955. Only the jetty, foundations of the original quarantine hospital, and burial sites can be found in the rarely visited nature reserve.
Today, Channel Island Power Station occupies the southern half of the island and the northern half is a conservation reserve. You can drive to the island and many people visit it to use the local boat ramp. Many people also work in the power station, gas plant or aquaculture farm without being aware of the island’s unique features.
The wreck of the S.S. “Ellengowan”, located NE of Channel Island is the oldest known shipwreck in Darwin Harbour. After a rich history as a luxury steam launch and coastal trader, the unseaworthy vessel was used as a hulk for Chinese quarantine passengers. Being in such poor condition, the Ellengowan sank at its mooring off Channel Island in 14 metres of dark water, unmanned, during the night of 27 April 1888. It is now a protected historic wreck.
On low spring tides, the extensive reef and mudbanks off the northwestern end of the island and the reef under the bridge on the eastern side of the island dry for a few hours. It has become a favourite spot for scientific study. The site has proven to be very special. The Channel Island Reefs are a strangely diverse coral community of 28 species despite the wet season outflows, poor visibility and blanket of fine muds in the area. The shallow reefs are 5M deep at high water and cover around 270 hectares. Visibility in the area is poor, between 1 to 3 metres during neap tides.