The strait links the Coral Sea to the east with the Arafura Sea and Gulf of Carpentaria in the west. Although it is an important international sea lane, it is very shallow (7 to 15 m water depth), and the maze of reefs and islands can make it hazardous to navigate. In the south the Endeavour Strait is located between Prince of Wales Island (Muralug) and the mainland. Shipping enters Torres Strait via the Adolphus Channel which joins to the Great Barrier Reef lagoon to the southeast. Strong tidal currents occur in the narrow channels between islands and reefs, and large submarine sand dunes migrate across the seafloor. Some 580 coral reefs, including the Warrior Reefs and Eastern Patch Reefs, cover a total area of 2,400 km2 (930 sq mi) in the region, as well as some of the most extensive seagrass beds in the world.
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.
Torres Strait Islands air photo
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. There are several major policy and institutional frameworks in the Torres Strait region that support the sustainable use and management of marine resources while also protecting habitats, biodiversity and the traditional islander way of life. Most important of these is the Torres Strait Treaty entered into by Australia and Papua New Guinea in February 1985. The Treaty defines sovereignty and maritime boundaries in the area between the two countries. It guides decision makers on protecting the way of life and livelihood of traditional inhabitants, on managing the protection of habitats, and on sharing the commercial and traditional fisheries resources. The Treaty established a Torres Strait Protected Zone within which both nations manage access to fisheries resources. Each country exercises sovereign jurisdiction for resources on either side of the agreed jurisdiction lines.
The islands' indigenous inhabitants are the Torres Strait Islanders, who are distinct from both the Papuans of adjoining New Guinea and from Aboriginal groups on the nearby Australian mainland but related to both. The various Torres Strait Islander communities have a unique 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: Kala Lagaw Ya/Kalaw Kawaw Ya/Kawalgau Ya/Muwalgau Ya/Kulkalgau Ya, and Miriam 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.
Environmental issues facing the region include the risk of mining waste from the Fly River in southern Papua New Guinea, the impacts of global climate change and the sustainable management of natural resources.