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Rottnest Island

Maritime history of Rottnest Island


Rottnest Island's waters contain a number of shipwrecks - a legacy of the uncharted navigational voyages that occurred during the early exploration of the southwest coast of Australia. The earliest discovery of Rottnest Island by Europeans is credited to Dutch navigators during the 17th century in their search for a shorter route from the Cape of Good Hope to Batavia. The first Europeans to actually land on the Island are believed to have been Samuel Volkerson and his crew of the Dutch ship Waeckende Boey while searching for survivors of another Dutch ship the Vergulde Draek in 1658. William de Vlamingh, who in 1696 was the next recorded European visitor to Rottnest Island, gave the Island its name after the abundance of quokkas he saw, mistaking them for rats.


More than thirteen ships have been wrecked within the waters of Rottnest Island. These wrecks are protected under Commonwealth legislation, Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, as well as State legislation, Maritime Archeology Act 1973. Plaques have been located next to the wrecks and are complemented by onshore plaques indicating their locations.

Pilot services and lighthouses

The operation of the pilot station is another major element of the maritime history of Rottnest Island. The Rottnest Island Pilot Station operated between 1848 and 1903. Pilots were experienced sailors whose job was to guide ships around dangerous reefs and into Fremantle harbour mainly to deliver supplies to the Swan River Colony. Over its 55 years of operation, the Rottnest Island Pilot Station used a number of different boats. Generally, the boat types used were a double-ended whaleboat, a slightly larger lugger and a small dinghy.

Lighthouses played a key role in the pilot boat operations by providing a communication link between the pilot boat station and incoming ships. The Island's first lighthouse was completed in 1851 and was constructed by Aboriginal prisoners, under the supervision of the Prison Superintendent. Half a century later it was replaced with a new, taller lighthouse on Wadjemup Hill; and a third was built in 1900 at Bathurst Point after the loss of 11 lives when the ship, the City of York, was wrecked in 1899. The Bathurst Point and Wadjemup Hill lighthouses remain today. The Wadjemup lighthouse is open to the public and tours are conducted daily.

A secure boathouse, established in 1846, was the first building constructed for the pilot service. This was built at the northern end of the seawall. Six years later, quarters for the pilot crew were added to the top of the boathouse. In 1859 another boathouse was built and both still remain today. The last pilot left Rottnest Island in 1903, ending more than 55 years of piloting, and a new system was established with a signal station set up near Bathurst Lighthouse for the Fremantle Harbour Trust. It was dismantled in 1904 and then erected near Wadjemup lighthouse. Once a vessel was sighted, the news was telephoned to the lighthouse in Fremantle and the new, steam-powered pilot boat dispatched from there. The signal station remained in operation until 1949 when compulsory pilotage was abolished, effectively making the signal station on Rottnest Island redundant. The signal station was restored in 2002.

There is an exhibition on the Rottnest Island Pilot Service including a replica whaleboat, now housed in the 1859 pilot boathouse. This exhibition is open daily.