SYDNEY, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Ships waiting to dock at Australia's Port Hedland bulk export terminals started on Tuesday heading for safe waters as a tropical low which is forecast to reach cyclone strength makes its way down the far west coastline of the Pilbara iron belt.
Loading operations were still taking place at Port Hedland as the storm is not expected to intensify to a Category 1 cyclone -- the weakest on a scale of one-to-five -- until early Wednesday.
Vessels anchored off the port, however, have left for safe harbours, according to a port spokesperson.
Port Hedland is used by BHP Billiton , Fortescue Metals Group and Atlas Iron to ship ore, currently at a rate of around 200 million tonnes per year, accounting for a fifth of global seaborne trade in the steel-making raw material.
"I can tell you 35 vessels have been evacuated, these are vessels somewhat out to sea which were waiting to dock," the port spokesperson said. "At the moment, there are only seven ships in dock."
If the storm reaches cyclone intensity, then gales with wind gusts of up to 100 kph (60 mph) could develop between Pardoo and Dampier on Wednesday morning, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
BHP and Fortescue have each decided against loading vessels to maximum weigh limits as a precautionary safety measure while the progress of the storm is monitored, the spokesperson said.
Total iron ore shipments from Port Hedland in December reached a monthly record 26 million tonnes.
A cyclone that intensified 11 days ago several hundred kilometers south of Port Hedand shut ports handling nearly 200 million tonnes of ore shipped annually by Rio Tinto and cut supplies of natural gas and oil.
Rio Tinto was monitoring the progress of the latest storm, according to a company spokesperson.
At this stage if a cyclone forms it will not occur until the low has moved some 200 km (125 miles) south of Port Hedland, based on current forecasts, placing it closer to Rio Tinto's facilities at the ports of Dampier and Cape Lambert.
Most of the iron ore mined in Australia is contracted by Chinese steel mills, with Japanese and South Korean mills also big buyers.
Before the last cyclone, Woodside Petroleum, Apache Energy and BHP disconnected oil production vessels from offshore fields that contribute about a third of Australia's oil production of 390,000 barrels per day..
"Woodside is taking the necessary precautions to safeguard our people and assets in response to the tropical low currently located off Australia's north west coast," a company spokesperson said.