Tiwi Islands – Melville and Bathurst Islands

The Tiwi Islands are part of the “Top End” (the top part of the Northern Territory), located as they are 80km north of Darwin.

They comprise Melville and Bathurst Islands, and together cover 8,320 square kilometers. Melville is Australia’s largest island (except for the state of Tasmania), and Bathurst is Australia’s five-largest island.

The islands are known as the “islands of smiles,” due to the happy attitude of the approximately 2,500 residents who call the Tiwi Islands home. Over 90% are of the residents are indigenous, most of whom speak Tiwi as their first language.

Visits to the island are closely regulated – tourists can only visit as part of an organized tour.


The Tiwi Islands were home to the Tiwi Indigenous Australians prior to European settlement. The first Europeans settled on the island in 1824, but lasted only five years due to the hostility of the islanders. Next, a Catholic mission was established in 1911 in what is today Nguiu (a Catholic timber church built in the 1930s in Nguiu still stands today, and is a landmark).

The islands were declared an Aboriginal Reserve in 1912.  In 1978 political control of the islands transitioned to the Tiwi Aboriginal Land Trust, which was replaced by the Tiwi Island Shire Council in 2008.

Natural environment

A significant area of the islands are covered by dense rainforest, and the islands have large eucalyptus stands with trees larger than anywhere else in the Northern Territory. Miles of beaches edge the islands, as do mangroves, sand flats, and offshore estuaries and reef systems.  These areas are desirable habitats for a wide variety of marine life.

The Tiwi Islands are located in the monsoon belt, with up to 2,000mm of annual rainfall on Bathurst Island up to 1,400mm on Melville Island.

Due to the Tiwi Islands’ high annual precipitation and remoteness (there are few proximate islands), a unique ecosystem has evolved on the island. Some species inhabit the island that are not present anywhere else in the Northern Territory, and some species are exclusive to the Tiwi Islands are not found anywhere else in the world (including several snail and dragonfly species, and eight species of plant).

The islands are home to 38 threatened species, as well as a population of vulnerable olive ridley turtles (the island manages a turtle conservation program).  The islands have the largest breeding colony of Crested Terns in the world.  Several shark and saltwater crocodile species inhabit the waters around the island.

Activities (Nature and Wildlife Interest)

Visits to the island are only possible by organized tour, and only during the dry season (March to October or November). Day tours from Darwin are popular, as are multi-day fishing tours. Most tours visit Bathurst Island.

In addition to swimming and bushwalking, the three most popular activities on the islands are fishing, wildlife viewing, and cultural tours.


The waters around the islands are renowned for their fishing opportunities. Fly fishing, lure fishing, bluewater fishing, and Barramundi fishing are all popular here. Over 50 species of fish are regularly caught in the waters surrounding Tiwi Islands, including: Mackerel, Grunter, Black Jewfish, Mangrove Jacks, Golden Snapper, Queenfish, Golden Trevally, Blue Salmon, and Threadfin Salmon.

Wildlife viewing

Visitors to Tiwi Islands regularly see whales, dolphins, turtles, Dugongs, and crocodiles.

Cultural tours

The Tiwi Islands’ culture was influenced to a large degree by Polynesia, making for a unique culture. Aboriginal cultural tours are popular on the islands, and usually comprise a visit to the historical and art museum, a walk-around their main town Nguiu, a stop at the historical Catholic Church, a tour around the artisan workshops, a view of traditional dancing and a smoking ceremony, and a scenic wilderness drive.

Visitors to the island often purchase arts and crafts because the Tiwi Islands are known for their vibrant and colourful artwork (including batik, pottery, textile screen painting, and carving).


Visitors on fishing expeditions to the Tiwi Islands stay at The Lodge, which looks directly out onto Aspley Straight – which separates Bathurst and Melville Islands. The lodge has a large living room area, with two air-conditioned bedrooms off either side. The lodge is set within a tropical garden, and also has a spa.


The Tiwi Islands have several recreational camping sites. Permits must be obtained in advance.

Getting There

By air…

Frequent flights connect all major Australian capitals with Darwin. From there, commercial flights connect the islands to the mainland on airline Fly Tiwi, which operates two daily flights to the three main communities on the islands, which take just over 30 minutes. Flights depart from the Darwin Airport, but from a separate area – the General Aviation section of the airport.

By sea…

The catamaran ferry Arafura Pearl connects Darwin with the islands’ largest town, Nguiu, in a two-hour ride which they operate three days a week.

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