North Reef Lighthouse

IALA Heritage Lighthouse of the Year 2023 Nominee

Location: AUSTRALIA - Queensland. North Reef.

Lighthouse Operator: Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)

Visit website

Source: (photos as submitted to accompany nomination form by Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in 2023)

Lighthouse Description and History

(Text extracted from nomination form submitted by Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in 2023)

Built in 1878, North Reef Lighthouse is one of AMSA’s most unique towers due to its technical design and location. Situated in the Great Barrier Reef, the tower was built on a coral reef 65 miles from the nearest mainland town.

At high tide the lighthouse was completely surrounded by water, and the site once featured a jetty. Over time, sand has accumulated around the tower, and it is now a small sandy island with some vegetation.

North Reef sits at the southwest edge of the Capricorn Channel, a stretch of water that runs along the Queensland coast. It was thought that placing a light in this vicinity would successfully alert ships to nearby shoals and coral reefs.

The Colonial Architect for Queensland proposed the following design: ‘It is proposed to erect the tower as a centre, the dwellings for lightkeepers being arranged round the base of the same. The foundation for the whole structure will be in cement concrete contained within a cast iron cylinder 40 feet in diameter carried down 15 feet through the sand bank to the cap of the coral reef and 2 feet into same. In order to provide storage for water and also to economise the quantity of concrete required it is proposed to form circular tanks below floor level.’

Once built, the tower stood as a 24-meter tower comprised of a Queensland timber frame, sheeted in galvanised iron and crowned with a Chance Brothers & Co. lantern room.

Lighthouse keepers lived in the base of the tower, which was designed as a circular living space on the ground floor – a ring of eight rooms with three bedrooms, two sitting rooms, two kitchens, and a storeroom. This sat above a hollow water tank of cast concrete and iron which stored the only fresh water on site, and provided a foundation with resistance to the ever-shifting sandbank.

Key dates:
14th Nov 1878 – Lighthouse lit for first time
1886 – Lighthouse boat capsized near the tower and keepers abandoned the light to save seven men.
1924 – Light converted to acetylene operation
1926 – The S.S. Cooma runs aground on North Reef
1927 – 2nd Order Chance Bros. & Co lens and mercury bath installed
1977 – Light converted to electric operation
1978 – Lighthouse keepers leave lighthouse and light becomes fully automated
1987 – Solar power introduced at the site
2004 – Lighthouse listed on the Commonwealth Heritage List
2010/11 – Major refurbishment works

At some stage the Chance Bros. lens and mercury bath were removed, however records of when this occurred are limited.

Lighthouse keeping:
North Reef Lighthouse was originally staffed by three lightkeepers – a superintendent, and two assistants. Due to the complete isolation and the cramped living space, only bachelors were considered to be stationed at North Reef as the sheer lack of living space did not permit wives and children to reside there also.

The keepers, completely surrounded by open water, were at the mercy of the supply ships that were due to complete regular trips to the lighthouse with food and fresh water. However, supply ships were sometimes few and far between. One supply ship in 1921 arrived at the lighthouse with timber and domestic supplies, only to find the keepers had been ‘practically starving for a week, their only food having been turtle eggs and a little cornflour.’ The lighthouse keepers would become known on the mainland as ‘inmates’.

Reason For Nomination

(Text extracted from nomination form submitted by Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in 2023)

Intrinsic Heritage Interest of the Lighthouse

North Reef Lighthouse is listed on the Australian Government’s Commonwealth Heritage List. For a lighthouse to be included on this list, it must meet at least one of nine criterion that cover a range of heritage values. The decision to include on the list is made by the Australian Heritage Council, and North Reef meets three of the criterion – Historical Significance, Rarity and Technical Achievement.

The following information is derived from the Commonwealth Heritage List, as well as the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s assessment of the lighthouse.

Historical significance:

The North Reef Lighthouse is significant as an important element in the establishment of navigational aids along the Queensland coast, and reflects the development of the coastal regions of Queensland after its separation from the State of New South Wales. The North Reef Lighthouse is the last of the four lighthouses recommended by the parliamentary committees in 1864.

Aesthetic value:

The aesthetic value of the lighthouse resides in the white-painted ironclad tower set in low vegetation on a sand patch within a fringing reef.


North Reef Lighthouse, built in 1878 is significant as a rare example of a lighthouse built on a coral reef, incorporating a residence at the base of the tower. North Reef is the tallest of the Queensland timber framed lighthouses.

Technical achievement:

North Reef Lighthouse exemplifies, better than any other Australian lighthouse of its type, the design innovation of a riveted iron cladding over a hardwood structural frame. Uniquely, it demonstrates the use of a cast iron caisson and concrete base, an innovative solution to the problem of building a lighthouse on a coral cay. The incorporation of the keepers’ quarters around the base of the tower counts as an important design innovation, and the roof of the tower was designed in such a way as to catch rainwater and funnel into the water tank at the base.

Community association:

Until it was de-manned in 1978 the North Reef lightstation had an important place in the small community of lightkeepers, because of the particular social isolation of this, the only bachelor lightstation in Australia.

Significant people:

The North Reef lighthouse stands as evidence of the work of the architects who designed it, the workers who built it, and the lightkeepers who operated it.


AMSA strives to keep North Reef Lighthouse in excellent condition and preserve its historic features to ensure it is representative of an 1878 lighthouse.

The lighthouse is situated in a very aggressive marine environment and through a combination of gradual deterioration and significant failures to some structural components, large scale project works were undertaken in 2010. This saw the lighthouse rid of the following issues:

Lead paint

Asbestos sheeting

Sinking foundations

Corrosion to the steel sheeting

Timber rot

Works proceeded from top down. The first part of the scaffolding to balcony level was lowered after the lantern room was complete, and then repairs and waterproofing to the balcony was undertaken.

During repairs of the vertical tongue and groove lining boards, a board was found to have a previous keepers’ name inscribed on it – this was left intact.

Works were undertaken on the water tank which was suffering from rust damage and needed to be stabilised. The upper section was excavated, and the rust removed. The exposed concrete was scrabbled and after new galvanised reinforcement was installed, new concrete was poured into the curved formwork.

AMSA consulted closely with the environmental authorities who provided recommendations on the vessel and barge access routes across the reef, management of hazardous materials, and turtle and bird nesting including a resident pair of sea eagles.
A turtle barrier fence had to be established prior to nesting season to stop the turtles nesting in the work site and being disturbed or injured.

Public Access and Education

Although the lighthouse cannot be accessed by the general public, due to its location within an environmental protection area, its influence reaches the mainland in various ways.

AMSA promotes the lighthouse on its website:

As does the Great Barrer Reef Marine Park Authority who manage the larger Reef:

AMSA is currently preparing a Heritage Management Plan for North Reef Lighthouse which details the history of the site, its architectural design and features, and outlines the policies AMSA has in place to preserve its heritage significance. The plan will be made available online for all to read.