The ship, the Shen Neng, was carrying coal and oil and was more than seven miles off course when it suffered serious damage after running into the reef.

There are tightly controlled authorised shipping routes but local reports suggest that fishermen and others frequently stray much closer to the reef than permitted to save time with a short cut.

While it is currently unclear why the Chinese ship was so far off its official course, Australian premier Kevin Rudd has branded the incident ‘outrageous’ adding that the focus must first be on dealing with the pollution risk and then to bring to account those responsible.

While there were fears the ship could break up spilling vast quantities of oil, environmental protection authorities say the vessel is stable and the threat of a large oil slick has been contained with chemical dispersants and booms.

The vessels owners, the Shenzhen Energy Group, could be fined up to A$1m (£600,000) for straying.

Sam Bond

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