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Montebello Islands

Montebello Islands is located in Indian Ocean
Montebello Islands
Location of the Montebello Islands
Map of the Montebellos and Barrow Island
Sooty Oystercatcher standing on a rock
The islands are an important site for Sooty Oystercatchers

Beach Stone-curlew
Beach Stone-curlews inhabit the islands

Lithograph of a pair of Mala
Mala have been introduced to the islands

Nuclear test mushroom cloud
The mushroom cloud resulting from the Operation Hurricane detonation

The Montebello Islands, also known as the Monte Bello Islands, are an archipelago of around 174 small islands (about 92 of which are named) lying 20 kilometres (12 mi) north of Barrow Island and 130 kilometres (81 mi) off the Pilbara coast of north-western Australia. Montebello is Italian for "beautiful mountain". The islands form a conservation park administered by the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, and it is likely that the shallow waters around them will become a marine conservation reserve. The islands were the site of three nuclear weapons tests by the British military in the 1950s.


  • Description 1
    • Birds 1.1
    • Mammals 1.2
  • History 2
    • British nuclear weapons tests 2.1
  • Islands 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


The islands of the archipelago have a collective land area of about 22 km2 The largest islands, Hermite (or Hermit) and Trimouille have areas of 1022 ha and 522 ha respectively. They consist of limestone rock and sand. The rocky parts are dominated by Triodia hummock grassland with scattered shrubs, while the sandy areas support grasses, sedges and shrubs, mainly Acacia. Patches of mangroves grow in sheltered bays and channels of the archipelago, especially at Hermite Island. The climate is hot and arid with an annual average rainfall of about 320 mm.[1]


The islands have been identified by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA) because they support over 1% of the world populations of fairy and roseate terns, and of sooty oystercatchers.[2] Greater crested terns breed there irregularly, sometimes in large numbers. Other birds breeding on the islands include ospreys, white-bellied sea eagles, pied oystercatchers, Caspian terns and bridled terns. The islands support 12–15 breeding pairs of beach stone-curlews. Yellow white-eyes have been recorded.[1]


Invasive feral cats and black rats have been eradicated from the islands, allowing endangered rufous hare-wallabies and Shark Bay mice to be translocated to the islands under the conservation management strategy for these threatened species.[1] They are now common on many of the larger islands.


It is believed that the islands were occupied by indigenous Australians until about 5,000 BCE, when a period of global warming and rising sea levels caused the Montebellos to become more distant from the mainland, and forced abandonment.[3]

The first Europeans known to have seen the islands were the crews of a French Navy exploration expedition, led by Nicolas Baudin, in 1801. Baudin named Hermite Island after Admiral Jean-Marthe-Adrien L'Hermite and Trimouille Island after a French aristocratic family. There are inconsistencies in the naming of the islands in the accounts of the early explorers, and it has been suggested that later explorers mixed up the names of Lowendal and Hermite Islands.

An early reference to the islands is in 1622, when the English ship Tryall was wrecked just west of them. For years afterwards their approximate position was recorded on charts as the Tryal Rocks.

The islands were economically significant for pearl fishing from the end of the 19th century until the outbreak of the Second World War.

British nuclear weapons tests

The Montebello islands were the site of three nuclear weapons tests by the British military: one in 1952, and two in 1956.

A bay on Trimouille Island was the site of Operation Hurricane, the first ever atomic weapon tested by the United Kingdom, on 3 October 1952.

While most subsequent British tests were conducted at sites on mainland Australia, in 1956 there were two further tests, on Alpha and Trimouille Islands respectively. The second of these, codenamed "G2", included the largest nuclear explosion in Australia, with a yield of 98 kilotons.

Fallout from the Montebello tests is reported to have contaminated areas of mainland Australia as far away as the Queensland towns of Mount Isa, Julia Creek, Longreach and Rockhampton.[4]


Of the smaller islands, the largest are:

  • North-West Island
  • Primrose Island
  • Bluebell Island
  • Alpha Island
  • Crocus Island
  • Campbell Island
  • Delta Island
  • Renewal Island
  • Ah Chong Island

There are also 10 named groups of small islets, whose individual islands have not yet been named:

  • Corkwood Islands
  • Fig Islands
  • Hakea Islands
  • Jarrah Islands
  • Jasmine Islands
  • Karri Islands
  • Marri Islands
  • Minnieritchie Islands
  • Mulga Islands
  • Quandong Islands
NASA World Wind satellite image of main Montebello Island group


  1. ^ a b c BirdLife International. (2011). Important Bird Areas factsheet: Montebello Islands. Downloaded from on 16/08/2011.
  2. ^ "IBA: Montebello Islands". Birdata. Birds Australia. Retrieved 2011-08-16. 
  3. ^ Peter Veth, 1994, "The Aboriginal Occupation of the Montebello Islands, north-west Australia", Australian Aboriginal Studies, n2, pp39–50.
  4. ^ Cross, Roger. (2001). Fallout. Wakefield Press. (p.179).

Further reading

  • Acaster, Ray. (1995). British nuclear testing at the Monte Bello Islands. Early Days Vol. 11, no.1. pp.66–80.
  • Arnold, Lorna; and Smith, Mark. (2006). Britain, Australia and the Bomb: The Nuclear Tests and their Aftermath. Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 1-4039-2102-4
  • Bird, Peter. (1989). Operation Hurricane. Square One Publications: Worcester. (First published in 1953). ISBN 1-872017-10-X
  • Burbidge, A. A. (1971). The fauna and flora of the Monte Bello Islands. Department of Fisheries and Fauna: Perth.
  • Deegan, P. M. (1992). Monte Bello and Lowendal Islands: bibliography, summary report of marine resources. Dept. of Conservation and Land Management: Perth.
  • Duyker, Edward. (2006). François Péron: An Impetuous Life: Naturalist and Voyager. Miegunyah/MUP: Melbourne. ISBN 978-0-522-85260-8
  • Fornasiero, Jean; Monteath, Peter; and West-Sooby, John. (2004). Encountering Terra Australis: the Australian voyages of Nicholas Baudin and Matthew Flinders. Wakefield Press: Kent Town, South Australia. ISBN 1-86254-625-8
  • Horner, Frank. (1987). The French Reconnaissance: Baudin in Australia 1801—1803. Melbourne University Press: Melbourne. ISBN 0-522-84339-5.
  • Tuckfield, Trevor. (1 August 1951). The Monte Bello Islands. Walkabout, Vol. 17, No. 8. pp.33–34.

External links

  • Video footage of the Operation Hurricane detonation on Trimouille Island in 1951
  • by Steve ReynoldsNicolas Baudin’s Scientific Expedition To The Terres Australes – Marine Life Society of South Australia Inc.
  • Details of a feral cat eradication program on Hermite Island in 1999
  • Nuclear testing details
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