The Torres Strait is a body of water which lies between Australia and the Melanesian island of New Guinea. It is approximately 150 km wide at its narrowest extent. To the south is Cape York Peninsula, the northernmost continental extremity of the Australian state of Queensland. To the north is the Western Province of the independent state of Papua New Guinea.
Several clusters of islands lie in the Strait, collectively called the Torres Strait Islands. There are at least 274 of these islands, of which 17 have present-day permanent settlements. Over 6,800 Torres Strait Islanders live on the Islands and 42,000 live on the mainland.
These islands have a variety of topographies, ecosystems and formation history. Several of those closest to the New Guinea coastline are low-lying, formed by alluvial sedimentary deposits borne by the outflow of the local rivers into the sea. Many of the western islands are hilly and steep, formed mainly of granite, and are peaks of the northernmost extension of the Great Dividing Range now turned into islands when sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age. The central islands are predominantly coral cays, and those of the east are of volcanic origins. The islands are considered Australian territory and are administered from Thursday Island.
The islands' indigenous inhabitants are the Torres Strait Islanders, Melanesian peoples related to the Papuans of adjoining New Guinea. The various Torres Strait Islander communities have a distinct culture and long-standing history with the islands and nearby coastlines. Their maritime-based trade and interactions with the Papuans to the north and the Australian Aboriginal communities have maintained a steady cultural diffusion between the three societal groups, dating back thousands of years at least.
Two indigenous languages are spoken on the Torres Strait Islands, known by dialect names : Kala Lagaw Ya/Kalaw Kawaw Ya/Kawalgaw Ya/Kulkalgaw Ya, and Meriam Mir, as well as Brokan [Broken], otherwise called Torres Strait Creole. In the 2001 Australian national census, the population of the islands was recorded as 8,089, though many more live outside of Torres Strait in Australia.
The first recorded European navigation of the strait was by Luis Váez de Torres, a Spanish seaman who was second-in-command on the Spanish expedition of Pedro Fernandez de Quirós who sailed from Peru to the South Pacific in 1605. After Quiros's ship returned to Mexico, Torres resumed the intended voyage to Manila via the Moluccas. He sailed along the south coast of New Guinea, and may also have sighted the northernmost extremity of the Australian mainland, however no specific records exist that indicate he did so.
In 1769 the Scottish geographer Alexander Dalrymple found Torres' report of this voyage in Manila, and it was he who named the strait after Torres. This information was later made use of by Captain James Cook. In 1770 Cook claimed the whole of eastern Australia for the British Crown, and sailed through the strait after proceeding up the eastern coast of the continent. The London Missionary Society arrived on Erub (Darnley Island) in 1871. Although some of the Torres Strait islands lie just off the coast of New Guinea, they were annexed in 1879 by Queensland, then a British colony.
There was an important pearling industry from the 1860s until about 1970 when it collapsed in the face of competition from the plastics industry. Pearl-shelling was responsible for the arrival of experienced divers from many countries, notably Japan.
In 1978 an agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea determined the maritime border in the Torres Strait.
Due to the proximity to the Papua New Guinea mainland the northern Torres Strait islands have been experiencing significant numbers of illegal long-term residents from Papua New Guinea, putting significant strain on scarce local resources such as fresh water. In November 2007 community leaders held emergency talks with Australian immigration officials with a view to having illegal residents returned to Papua New Guinea.
Singe, John. (2003). My Island Home: A Torres Strait Memoir. University of Queensland Press. ISBN 0-7022-3305-6