The Bass Strait is a sea strait separating Tasmania from the south of the Australian mainland, specifically the state of Victoria. The International Hydrographic Organization defines the limits of the Bass Strait as:
On the West. The Eastern limit of the Great Australian Bight
On the East. The Western limit of the Tasman Sea between Gabo Island and Eddystone Point
Approximately 240 km wide at its narrowest point and generally around 50 metres deep, the Strait contains over 50 islands.
The strait was named after George Bass after he and Matthew Flinders passed through it while circumnavigating Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in the Norfolk in 1798 99. At Flinders’ recommendation in 1800, the Governor of New South Wales named the stretch of water between the mainland and Tasmania “Basses Strait”. Later it became known as Bass Strait.
The “Bass Strait Triangle”
Many vessels, some quite large, have disappeared without trace, or left scant evidence of their passing, leading it be called the Bass Strait Triangle – a reference to the notorious Bermuda Triangle – by some. But it is Australia’s busiest stretch of water after all, and shipping to the ports of Melbourne, Stanley, Burnie, Devonport, Bell Bay and Launceston and the Bass Strait islands must all pass through Bass Strait, as does general sea traffic travelling east and west, so a higher than normal number of incidents can only to be expected.
Despite myths and legends of piracy, wrecking and alleged supernatural phenomena akin to those of the Bermuda Triangle, most disappearances can be invariably ascribed to combinations of wind and sea conditions, and the numerous semi-submerged rocks and reefs within the Straits. The prevailing winds and currents are westerly, the latter being divided by King Island at the western entrance to the strait, causing unpredictable sea conditions, especially when strong winds occur.
Most air traffic between Tasmania and the Australian mainland flies at least in partly over or adjacent to it. The first aircraft to go missing in Bass Strait was a military Airco DH.9A that was engaged in a search for the missing schooner Amelia J in 1920 it was believed to have gone into the sea off the southern coast of Flinders Island. One of the first trans-Bass Strait airliners, the De Havilland Express Miss Hobart, went missing soon after entering service in 1934, only a small amount of wreckage being found on the Victorian coast. A year later, a similar aircraft was lost with all on board off Flinders Island. The cause of both accidents was probably a combination of human error and poor aircraft design.
During the Second World War, several aircraft mostly RAAF Bristol Beaufort bombers were lost during exercises in Bass Strait while on training flights, mainly RAAF Base East Sale near Sale, Victoria. These accidents were probably caused by inexperienced crews practicing low-level bombing similar accidents occurred over land. In 1972, a De Havilland Tiger Moth flown by Brenda Hean and Max Price disappeared on a flight from Tasmania to Canberra as part of protests against the flooding of Lake Pedder for a hydro-electricity scheme. It was believed to have crashed at sea somewhere between the East Coast and Flinders Island. Sabotage by pro-development interests was alleged.
The most famous incident, and the one that has been the inspiration for paranormal explanations, was the disappearance of 20 year-old Frederick Valentich while on a 35 km training flight in a Cessna 182L light aircraft over Bass Strait on Saturday, 21 October 1978. Valentich reported to personnel at a local airport that a strange object was buzzing his plane. He then claimed that the object had moved directly in front of his plane. Reportedly, the airport personnel then heard a metallic “scraping” sound, followed by silence. Valentich and his plane subsequently vanished and neither he nor his plane was ever seen again.
The fastest and often the cheapest method of travel across Bass Strait is by air. The major airports in Tasmania are Hobart International Airport and Launceston Airport, where the main airlines are Jetstar Airways and Virgin Australia. Qantas and Tiger Airways Australia also operate services. The smaller airports in the north of the state and on the islands in the strait are served either by Regional Express Airlines, QantasLink or King Island Airlines.
The domestic sea route is serviced by two Spirit of Tasmania passenger vehicle ferries. The ships travel daily in opposite directions between Devonport, Tasmania, and Station Pier in Melbourne, as overnight trips with additional daytime trips during the peak summer season.
Bass Strait is regularly crossed by sailing vessels, including during the annual Melbourne to Hobart Yacht Race. The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race passes generally east of the strait but is affected by its weather conditions. Australian Olympic bronze medalist Michael Blackburn set a record in March 2005 when he crossed the strait in just over 13 hours in a Laser sailing dinghy. Sea-going yachts and motor cruisers from both Victoria and Tasmania are regularly seen around the islands of Bass Strait, particularly during the summer months; many sea kayakers make the crossing, usually by island hopping on the eastern side of the strait.
Bass Strait Ferries
The first car ferry linking Tasmania and the mainland was the Taroona, of 4,286 tons, which arrived in Melbourne in March 1935 to begin the Bass Strait service. By the 1950s an increasing number of tourists were travelling to Tasmania, and many wanted to drive their own cars. The Taroona could only carry a small number, laboriously loaded on board by crane. However, in Europe the ferry business was being revolutionised by the introduction of Roll-on/Roll-off ships, into which cars could be driven directly on and off. The Federal Government agreed to built a number of such vessels to service Tasmania, to be operated by their Australian National Line. The first of these revolutionary new ships was the motor vessel Princess of Tasmania in 1959.
Oil and Gas Fields
A number of oil and gas fields exist in the eastern portion of Bass Strait, in what is known as the Gippsland Basin. Most large fields were discovered in the 1960s, and are located about 50 km to 65 km off the coast of Gippsland in water depths of about 70 m. These oil fields include the Halibut Field discovered in 1967, the Cobia Field discovered in 1972, the Kingfish Field, the Mackerel Field, and the Fortescue Field discovered in 1978. Large gas fields include the Whiptail field, the Barracouta Field, the Snapper Field, and the Marlin Field. Oil and gas are produced from the Cretaceous-Eocene clastic rocks of the Latrobe Group, deposited with the break-up of Australia and Antarctica.
The western field, known as the Otway Basin, was discovered in the 1990s offshore near Port Campbell. Its exploitation began in 2005. The oil and gas is sent via a pipeline to gas processing facilities and oil refineries at Longford, Western Port, Altona and Geelong, as well as by tanker to New South Wales.
Bass Strait Islands
Tasmania appears to move at a slow pace compared to mainland Australia but two island groups in the Bass Strait offer the opportunity to drop back a few more gears. The climate of the Bass Strait islands is maritime and generally mild, with the average rainfall. Winds are predominantly westerlies and can blow unabated for several days during late winter and spring. There are cool sea breezes in summer. For those who want some time out with just themelves and nature, these are the islands to head to.