Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service

The Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service (Reef VTS) monitors vessel traffic in the region to prevent collisions or incidents. The area has high environmental significance and is protected by a range of national and international measures.

Navigating a vessel through this region is challenging because the area:

  • is large and takes a long time to navigate
  • has confined waters with limited depths of water
  • has strong and variable tidal streams
  • is in a monsoon climate with low-visibility during rain squalls
  • can have tropical storms and cyclones
  • has narrow fairways
  • is used by a range of vessel types that have many different flag states and different types of cargo.

About Reef VTS

Reef VTS is a coastal vessel traffic service (VTS) dedicated to the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait region. Reef VTS operations are split into Reef North and Reef South, at latitude 18° 00'.00 South, coinciding with the regional boundary between the Cairns and Townsville regions. Services are delivered from the VTS centres in Townsville and Gladstone with each centre maintaining a capability to manage both the North and South sectors at all times.

Reef VTS:

  • improves navigational safety in the Torres Strait and inner route of the Great Barrier Reef by giving information to vessels about
    • potential traffic conflicts
    • navigational information
  • lowers the risk of maritime incidents in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait region that may result in
    • ship-sourced pollution
    • damage to the marine environment
  • responds quickly if there are any safety or pollution incidents in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait region.

Video about Reef VTS

Video transcript

Jason Rebello, Vessel Traffic Service Operator: Please confirm your exit point will be Sandy Cape. Over.

Voiceover: This is the Reef Vessel Traffic Service, or ReefVTS. It's mission is to monitor and promote the safe movement of large ships through this natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef.

Jason Rebello: Information received sir, thank you.

Tony Melrose, Manager Vessel Traffic Services: We monitor an area about 2,300km, from Bundaberg all the way up to the Torres Strait.

Voiceover: Based in Townsville, ReefVTS is a join venture betwewen the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and Maritime Safety Queensland. It watches over the largest stretch of monitored ocean in the world, a vital trade route worth more than 30 billion dollars a year.

Tony Melrose: The number of ships we monitor varies, from anywhere between 40 and 70 active voyages in the reef at any one time, along that 2,300km stretch.

Voiceover: ReefVTS is also arguably the world's most environmentally critical maritime traffic operation.

Tony Melrose: We are critically aware of the important of monitoring our ships to ensure the safety of the environment, and the ships.

Jason Rebello: It is very challenging, and it is quite rewarding at the end of it. We feel proud to be part of ReefVTS.

Voiceover: There's been just one shipgrounding since ReefVTS was established in 2004.

Tony Melrose: Mishaps are very rare, and this centre is critical to preventing mishaps. We use all sorts of sensors that are out in the field, and satellites to monitor the ships.

Jason Rebello: Usually we have a couple of sensors on every vessel. So that tells us at any point of time where the vessel is. And it makes it easier for us to monitor and track throughout the reef.

Tony Melrose: This large screen here represents roughly half the geographical area that we keep observation of. As you can see all these ships here, dark green, means they have pilots on board.

Worker: Thank you sir we'll send traffic information shortly via InMasts at sea.

Tony Melrose: This pristine environment of the Great Barrier Reef is not just for Australia, it's for the entire world.

Worker (voiceover): Have a safe watch and we'll speak to your reef pilot when he's on the bridge, over.


Reef VTS vessel master requirements

Vessel masters need to work with the Reef VTS operators to ensure safe operation of vessels in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait region. Masters are expected to make the best use of Reef VTS information and services when making navigational decisions.

Vessels operating in the Reef VTS area should acknowledge information from Reef VTS when asked and must respond quickly to enquiries.

Masters are expected to:

  • adhere to Reef VTS reporting requirements
  • respond to all warnings and advice from Reef VTS
  • contact Reef VTS if they identify a hazardous situation that may impact on the navigational safety of others.

The master of a vessel is always responsible for the way the vessel is operated and manoeuvred, and its safe navigation under all circumstances.

Functions of Reef VTS

Reef VTS monitors and communicates with vessels for safer navigation throughout the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait.

This is done by maintaining a vessel traffic image of vessels moving through the area. A vessel traffic image, or integrated surface picture, is a visual representation of the position and movement of vessels on a geographic information system.

Reef VTS provides vessel masters and pilots:

Our Purpose

The purpose of VTS is to contribute to the safety of life at sea, improve the safety and efficiency of navigation and support the protection of the environment within a VTS area by mitigating the development of unsafe situations through:

  • providing timely and relevant information on factors that may influence ship movements and assist onboard decision-making
  • monitoring and managing ship traffic to ensure the safety and efficiency of ship movements
  • responding to developing unsafe situations.

Objectives of the VTS

These objectives are in alignment to the purpose of VTS as defined by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Chapter V (Safety of Navigation) Regulation 12, VTS contributes to provide:

  • Enhance navigational safety by interacting with shipping to ensure safe and efficient movements and minimise maritime accidents and damage to the environment from ship-sourced pollution.
  • To maximise staff professionalism and stakeholder service satisfaction at all times.
  • Provide an accurate traffic picture by maintaining VTS equipment and assets that enables effective service delivery.
  • Maintain an effective and efficient Vessel Traffic Service.

Reef VTS tools

Reef VTS provides these functions to vessels in the region using:

Communication systems

To communicate with Reef VTS, you need to use English and the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) Standard Marine Communication Phrases through either:

  • Inmarsat C satellite system, which allows 2-way, text-based communication between a vessel and Reef VTS
  • VHF radio, which allows voice communication between vessels and the shore within the Reef VTS region.

Depending on a vessel’s position, you can contact Reef VTS on VHF channels 11 or 14 (radio call sign Reef VTS) 24 hours a day. To know what channel to use refer to the Reef VTS VHF Channel overview.

If you can't communicate with Reef VTS using Inmarsat C or the VHF working channel, you must communicate by:

Mandatory vessel reporting system

The Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Ship Reporting System (REEFREP) is a key part of Reef VTS. It requires all vessels—including those on overseas, interstate or intrastate voyages—to identify themselves and what their intended passage is through the region. The vessel can then be tracked as it moves through the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait.

Vessels must provide the following reports:

  • Entry Report
  • Final Report

When applicable, vessels must also provide these reports:

  • Intermediate Position Reports
  • Route Deviation Report
  • Defect Report

Marine Order 63—Vessel reporting systems and the Reef VTS User Guide detail the reporting requirements.

Vessels that must report

The following vessel types must report to Reef VTS:

  • vessels 50m or more in overall length
  • oil tankers, liquefied gas carriers or chemical tankers
  • vessels involved in towing or pushing 1 of these vessels
  • vessels involved in a towing or pushing operation when the overall length of the tow is more than 150m (measured from the stern of the towing vessel to the after end of the tow).

Other vessels moving through the Reef VTS area may voluntarily report. The following vessels are encouraged, but not required, to report to Reef VTS:

  • warships
  • naval auxiliary vessels
  • government owned or operated vessels.

Failure to report

Any vessel master, or officer of the watch (while in the Reef VTS area) is committing an offence if they:

  • fail to follow the reporting requirements
  • wilfully transmit information that is incorrect, false or misleading.

If you fail to report you may be fined and convicted by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority under the Commonwealth Navigation Act 2012.


Reef VTS Directions

Reef VTS Directions are instructions for temporary operation. This may be needed while we:

  • are developing a standard operating procedure (SOP)
  • need a particular consistent action by operators
  • are clarifying SOP requirements before making a formal amendment.

Download the Reef VTS Direction 01–23

Contact us

Reef North

Phone: 1300 721 293

Reef South

Phone: 1300 721 293

More information

Vessel traffic services
Last updated
14 March 2024