10 Arafura Sea Facts You Might Not Know
The Arafura Sea is located to the west of the Pacific Ocean. It is even considered a marginal sea of the Pacific due to its location. Per the International Hydrographic Organization, the Arafura Sea waters are part of the East Indian Archipelago.
This shallow sea lies over the continental shelf. Called the Arafura shelf, and it is a part of the Sahul shelf. The Arafura Sea is positioned between the northern coast of the Australian continent and the southern shores of West New Guinea. It is an important water body that connects the Pacific and the Indian Ocean while playing a major role in global circulation.
Apart from its advantageous location, it supports the livelihoods of several Australian and Indonesian communities near its coast. Around 93,000 people depend on its rich and diverse fisheries.
Let us learn some more interesting Arafura sea facts in this article.
1. Arafura Sea enjoys an advantageous geographical location
Many gulfs and other seas border the Arafura sea. From the south, it is bordered by the Gulf of Carpentaria. On the western side lies the Timor Sea, and on the northwest lies the Banda sea and the Seram Sea.
The Arafura sea is connected to the Coral Sea, which lies to the east, by the Torres Strait.
Interestingly, during the period of the last ice age, migration of people and cultures between New Guinea and the Australian landmass occurred due to the creation of a land bridge between Carpentaria Gulf, Arafura gulf and Torres Strait.
Hence, today the entire Arafura sea coastline is shared by Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
2. Arafura Sea covers around 650,000 square kilometres
The Arafura sea is approximately 1290 km long from north to south. The maximum width of the sea is 560 km. It is a relatively shallow sea with a 50-60 m depth. It becomes deeper as one goes towards its western end.
It covers an area of 650,000 square km. The salt concentration in its waters is moderate. About 33-35% of the sea has a moderate salinity.
3. Several islands lie in the Arafura Sea
The Arafura sea has four prominent islands: the Aru Islands, the Croker island, Howard and Goulburn islands.
The 3660 m deep Aru trough borders the Aru islands. They lie in the Maluku province, Indonesia and are inhabited by 84,139 people of Papua and Austronesian origin.
Croker island is situated in the Arafura sea, close to the Northern Territory of Australia. It lies 250 km northeast of the city of Darwin. Mountnorris Bay surrounds it, and Bowen Strait separates it from the Cobourg Peninsula.
Croker Island spans 128 square miles or 331 square kilometres. It is known for its serene beaches, wetlands, bushlands and swamps, home to diverse flora and fauna.
The Goulburn islands in Arnhem land and Weyirra and Warruwi are the biggest islands. These islands are inhabited by indigenous tribes which speak local languages.
Howards island lies near Australia’s Northern Territory. It covers 280.3 km of area and is 39 km lengthwise and 10 m breadthwise. A long waterway or channel distinguishes it from the mainland. About 1600 m from Howard is Elcho island, and about 1400 m is Banyan island.
4. Arafura sea experiences a tropical climate
The Arafura sea has a tropical climate and normal winds all year round. A warm current called the Indonesian Throughflow flows across its waters and the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean.
This water current has a huge impact on the water temperature as well as the weather of the region.
Though the Arafura Sea has stable winds most of the year, it is affected by tropical cyclones and monsoonal winds in the summer months.
The sea waters have an average temperature of 27 to 28 degrees Celsius. However, the temperature is expected to increase in the near future due to global warming and climate change.
The temperature in the sea varies only slightly with the seasons. In winter, the temperature drops to 25 or 26 degrees Celsius. Hence, the sea is never too hot nor too cold, which is why it has many marine animals and plants.
5. Home to diverse plants and animals
Several invertebrates, like sponges, corals, worms, sea anemones, feather stars, tunicate etc., are found in the Arafura sea waters.
Several sharks, dolphins, turtles, sea snakes, birds etc., are also found.
Five turtle species, including flatback, green turtles and hawksbill turtles, are found here.
Other prominent sea residents include Australian snubfin dolphins, dugongs and other fish. Many birds, like different types of kingfishers, owls, bats, fantails etc., also live in the coastal regions.
6. Famous for fishing, particularly shrimp and demersal fish
Fishing is common in the waters of the Arafura Sea, which is home to many fish species such as the Barramundi, penaeid shrimp, Nemipteridae fish, groupers etc.
The sea has 2.5 million tonnes of fishery resources. Around 1730 fishing vessels weighing over 30 gross tonnes and 21,000 ships weighing less than 30 gross tonnes operate in the sea. About 267,832 tonnes of seafood was caught in 2020 in the Arafura Sea.
While many fisheries and marine ecosystems across the world are overexploited and are on the verge of collapse, Arafura sea fisheries are counted among the richest in the world.
However, there are many increasing threats to the Arafura sea as illegal fishing activities and unreported and unregulated fishing incidents are rising.
Many regulations are in place to protect the fisheries of the Arafura sea. For instance, the Arafura and the Timor Seas Expert Forum was formed in 2002 to protect these water bodies and their ecosystems.
7. Arafura Sea is threatened due by human activities
The Arafura Sea holds a variety of marine species; however, they are all exposed to many threats created due to human greed and negligence, such as pollution, excessive fishing and illegal fishing.
The coastal regions surrounding the sea have huge populations of seabirds, reptiles and mammals, most of which depend on the Arafura sea for survival.
Also, most economically viable fish species are exploited beyond the natural limits, decreasing their populations.
Also, populations of endangered species like the Flatblack turtles and Hawksbill turtle are declining as they get entangled in fishing nets and die. Even their nests are not safe.
8. The name of the sea dates back to the 16th century.
The name ‘Arafura sea’ was used by Europeans since the late 16th century. In 1663, Joan Blaeu used it on his East Indies map. He mentioned that the residents of the Moluccas islands called themselves the Alfores.
The name was also found in Geroge Windsor’s book, Sailing Directions for the Arafura Sea.
Hence, it has been argued that Arafura is taken from the Portuguese word, Alfours, which translates to free men.
However, it is also said that the sea was most probably named after the indigenous people who live in the Moluccas. They were called Harrafora, and this explanation was given by Kolff and Modera in the 1800s.
9. Digul is the only major river which flows into the Arafura Sea
There are not many rivers flowing into the Arafura Sea. Digul is the only major river that drains into the Arafura sea.
Digul, or the Digoel River, originates from the Star mountains in the Papua province of New Guinea. It flows through swamps for 525 kilometres and drains into the Arafura sea, north of Yos Sudarso island. It is navigable to Tanahmerah town, which is around 320 kilometres upstream.
Digul is the 4th longest river in New Guinea. It has a total length of 853 kilometres and a drainage basin spanning 45,900 square kilometres.
10. Arafura Sea has five ports
Amampare, on the southwest coast of New Guinea, is an important facility for exporting copper and gold derived from the mines in Erstsberg, Nassau. The copper concentrate, gold, general cargo, foodstuff and machinery are the main items handled by Amampare.
It is frequented by over 150 ships annually and handles 1,800,000 tonnes of cargo. It has a 250 m long berth, and the anchorage can accommodate vessels weighing up to 20,000 DWT.
Gove Harbour lies in the Northern Territory of Australia and is surrounded by Carpentaria Gulf to the east and the Arafura sea to the north. It imports general cargo, alumina, bauxite and aluminium hydroxide. A fishing wharf which also accommodates barges is managed by Alcan Gove. The port is frequented by 125 ships annually and two coastal barges in a week.
Another facility on the Arafura sea is located on the southern shores of Irian Jaya, on the Merauke river bank. The Merauke port is known for shipping copra, crocodile hides and timber. It also handles a considerable volume of ferry traffic.
There is also an oil terminal further upstream. Around 170,300 tonnes of cargo, 15,400 TEUs and over 500 ships are handled at the port annually.
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Disclaimer: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used in the article, have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendations on any course of action to be followed by the reader.
Zahra is an alumna of Miranda House, University of Delhi. She is an avid writer, possessing immaculate research and editing skills. Author of several academic papers, she has also worked as a freelance writer, producing many technical, creative and marketing pieces. A true aesthete at heart, she loves books a little more than anything else.