No other part of Australia's frontier is as closely watched by authorities as the Torres Strait, a shallow sea spanning the 150 km from the tip of Cape York to the coast of Papua New Guinea and flanked by the Coral Sea to the east and the Arafura Sea to the west. Scattered across the Strait like stepping stones are 138 islands, only 17 of which are inhabited. This region, many of whose 8,000 Australian residents follow traditional indigenous lifestyles, seems a tranquil tropical idyll. But for professional border-watchers - officials of the Australian Customs Service, Federal Police, Quarantine and Inspection Service, Navy and Immigration department - it is the front line in the struggle to keep Australia economically sound, environmentally clean and safe from unwanted pests - and guests. The number of boat people has plummeted since the federal government introduced tough new policies in the wake of 2001's Tampa incident. In 2000-01, 4,000 people entered Australia illegally by sea; since 2002, not a single boat person has reached the mainland.
Isolated though it is, the Strait is alive with activity: there are container vessels, fishing trawlers, supply barges, pleasure yachts and the small craft of Torres Strait Islanders and visiting Papua New Guineans. Among them are the boats of people trying to exploit cracks in the system to fish illegally and traffic in drugs, firearms and people. Starting on Thursday Island, the region's administrative hub, Time tags along with marine and land-based Customs officers to find out exactly what border protection means in this key outpost. "It's busy - or it's busier," says Steve Jeffs, Customs' Torres Strait district manager, of the agency's enforcement tasks. "The more time we spend out there, gathering intelligence, being part of the community, the more work it generates. And there's no such thing as seasonal crime. It's a year-long event." Engaged in sea trials in thursday Island harbor on a warm Friday morning, the crew of Australian Customs Vessel (ACV) Botany Bay are preparing to hand over their boat to a fresh team of eight officers from Customs' national marine unit. Under Commanding Officer Mark Cummins, Botany Bay's sailors are near the end of a three-week tour of duty and are putting the Bay Class vessel through exercises to address mechanical problems. At 0930, Cummins receives a call from the National Monitoring Centre in Canberra, asking Botany Bay to respond to a sighting by a Coastwatch surveillance plane of a suspected foreign fishing vessel (FFV) in Australian waters. Coastwatch has sent Canberra images of the boat showing crew retrieving longlines off the Duncan Islands group, 30 nautical mi. (55 km) north-west of Thursday Island. On the bridge of the 38-m vessel, the skipper accepts the task. He informs crew members of the mission and asks for a chart of the course. Leaning back in his seat, feet plonked on what anyone but a mariner would call the dashboard, Cummins jiggles a joystick in the armrest that operates the boat's flaps and fins, opening up the throttle for a 90-min. dash to the target zone.