The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. It is made up of a collection of over 2,900 individual coral reefs and 600 idyllic islands located along the north eastern coastline of Australia. The Great Barrier Reef ecosystem has the most diverse range of underwater animals found anywhere in the world. This world heritage site has many attractions and things to do such as snorkelling, scuba diving, swimming, sailing, whale and dolphin watching and lots more. Over two million tourists visit the area each year to enjoys these wonders of nature.
The Great Barrier Reef (marked in grey on the map) is located between 15 to 150 kilometres off the north-eastern coast of Queensland, Australia in the Coral Sea in the Pacific Ocean. It extends from the tip of Cape York Peninsula in the north to Bundaberg in the south.
The Great Barrier Reef is 2,300 km (1,450 miles) long. This is about the same distance along the west coast of North America starting at Vancouver and ending in San Diego. The width of the reef varies from between 60 to 250 kilometres wide. To provide a scale of the sheer magnitude of this reef; the Belize Reef in the Caribbean, which is the second longest reef in the world, is just 290 km.
The total area of the Great Barrier Reef is 344,000 sq kilometres. It has an average depth of 35 meters in its in-shore waters. The outer reefs extends over 2000 metres. Coral however do not live at these great depths. In terms of size, it is as big as Germany or Japan and half as big as Texas. It is so large, that it is the only living organism on the planet that is visible from space.
Structure of The Great Barrier Reef What is the Great Barrier Reef Made of?
Coral reefs, such as The Great Barrier Reef, are natural underwater ecosystems built from calcium carbonate structures made from the accumulation of the bodies of billions tiny animals known as coral polyps. In fact, most of the coral structure is made up the calcified remains of dead coral polyps. Only the topmost layers are alive. With the right amount of sunlight, water conditions and temperature, and over long periods of time, corals form the structures the make up the beautiful reefs we see today.
An individual polyp has a tubular body with tentacles surrounding the mouth at the upper end. The polyp lives inside a stony translucent (see-through) limestone case made of calcium carbonate. It constructs this case by extracting calcium from the water.
Corals can live individually or on large colonies containing thousands of polyps. The brain coral, for example, is made up of thousands of little polyps no bigger than the size of a pinhead.
The Great Barrier Reef has the world's most diverse range of underwater animals. These include:
• 1,625 species of fish
• 360 types of coral
• 3,000 types of molluscs (like giant clams and the sea slug)
• 215 species of birds
• 14 species of sea snake
• 6 out of the world's 7 species of sea turtle (all listed as threatened)
• 630 species of echinoderm ( starfish, sea urchins)
• 30 species of cetaceans (whales and dolphins)
• 22 species of sea birds and 32 species of shorebirds
• 30 species of dolphins and whales
• 133 species of sharks and rays
• 1,300 species of crustaceans (crabs, prawns)
• 450 species of hard coral
• 40 species of sea anemones
• 150 species of soft coral and sea pens
• 100 jelly fish (blue bottle, box jellyfish)
The Great Barrier Reef does not have sea-forests with underwater trees and scrubs. The most prevalent type of plants are sea grasses. It also contained various types of algae such as seaweed, which are not true plants at all. Mangroves, which are actually terrestrial plants that is they grow above the surface of the sea but have their roots in it, are also considered part of the Great Barrier Reef flora.
Fifteen species of sea grasses grow in the Great Barrier Reef. Sea grasses are true plants (unlike seaweed and algae) with roots, flowers and seeds. They are most often found in shallow and protected lagoons referred to as back reefs which are usually found between a coral reef and the shore. Vast sea grass meadows are home to a diverse community of organisms and an important food source for turtles, dugongs, fish, octopuses, squids, cuttlefish, snails, oysters, sponges, shrimps, sea fleas, worms, urchins, anemones, micro-algae, crabs, polychaetes, clams, diatoms, dinoflagellates, copepods and many other creatures.
Seaweeds are marine algae. Like plants, seaweeds require sunlight for photosynthesis. Since they don't have roots they require a hard surface such as dead coral or rock to attach themselves to. There are over 400 species of marine algae growing in the Great Barrier Reef. Algae are major reef formers and create habitats for numerous numerous animals. They are also a major source of food for a large variety of herbivores, fishes, crabs, sea urchins and zooplankton. They also leak organic carbon into the water which is consumed by bacteria who in turn are consumed by many filter feeders.
Mangroves are plants that grow along many parts of the coastline along the Great Barrier Reef. There are 39 species of these plants that cover an area of approximately 3800 km2 of coastline. These represent almost all of the mangroves species found in Australia and half all mangrove species in the world. Mangroves provide a important buffer between land and reef. They benefit the reef by stabilizing shorelines, improving water quality by filtering out land runoff and pollutants. The extensive prop root systems of mangroves provide nursery habitats and protection for many reef animals.
The age of the Great Barrier Reef is about 6,000 to 8,000 years. The original coral reefs started forming in the Pacific Ocean, in the Coral Sea, sometime between 58 and 48 million years ago. There were many reefs formed and then destroyed and reformed over the ensuing millions of years. When Australia drifted to its present position, the sea levels were altered accelerating the formation of more coral reefs. The present coral reef is believed the have had two major phases of development. The first was about 600,000 years ago. This reef died due to changes in sea level and climate. The second phase started about 20,000 years ago when new coral started to grow on top of the remains of the older reef. As the sea levels rose, at end of the last glaciation period, the rising sea water started to cover low lying hills along the east coast of Australia. The coral reefs slowly started growing on this newly submerged land. Around 13,000 years ago the sea level stabilized. The current Great Barrier Reef configuration is about 6,000 to 8,000 years old.
The Great Barrier Reef is a very sensitive ecosystem. Many natural factors affect its heath.
Coral is very sensitive changes to temperature, nutrient and water quality. Just a 1 or 2 degree change in the water temperature has been known to stress coral and cause coral bleaching. It is feared that global warming may severely impact the reef.
Crown of Thorns
These starfish destroy coral by eating it. It was once thought of as a great risk to the reef but recent research has shown that it is actually native to this habitat and may act as a means of natural population control by eating coral polyps and making room for new coral to form.
Once in about every 17 years or so crown of thorns starfish appear in plague proportion, denuding vast tracts of the reef. It is thought that these outbreaks are related to increased rainfall and nutrient flows from flooded rivers.
The symbiotic algae which usually resides with the coral can sometimes put strain on the host causing it to eject the algae. Mass expulsions of the algae is known as coral bleaching (because the algae contribute to coral's colouration). This ejection seems to increase the polyp's chances of dealing with short-term stress. If the stressful conditions persist, the polyp eventually dies. A coral bleaching event in 2002 affect nearly 50% of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef.
These reefs take thousands of years to form. People can easily damage them by:
• Walking on them
• Dropping anchors on them
• Dragging diving gear over them
• Breaking them and taking them as souvenirs
• Knocking and grounding boats on them
Fortunately strict guidelines are presently enforced on all tour operators to ensure the protection of this vital natural asset.
The Great Barrier Reef is a protected wilderness areas and a World Heritage Site since 1975. It is strictly managed to minimise human induced pollutants. However the reef straddles an area with significant human activity which invariably results in human environmental damage. There are over 12 ports along the Great Barrier Reef with thousands of sea-going vessels travelling about it each day. Over 6,500 large ships also navigate through it each year.
Oil Spills and Ships Running Aground
Busy shipping channels traverse the reef and occasionally mishaps occur. Most recently bulk coal carrier Shen Neng 1 ran aground about 70km east of Great Keppel Island damaging its hulk and leaked a quantity of fuel oil into the water (The light blue area in the photograph on the left is caused by sand stirred up by the grounded vessel and not the actual fuel oil which was quickly contained).
Dumping and River Run-offs on Great Barrier Reef
Sediments, nutrients, fertilisers, pesticides, toxic chemicals, sewage, rubbish, detergents, heavy metals and oil run into rivers and out to the Great Barrier Reef, where they can threaten plants and animals on the reef.
The Great Barrier Reef was sighted by various European explorers from as early as the 17th century but none of them provided it with a name remembered today.
It was Matthew Flinders, who was the first to survey the entire Australian coastline between 1801 and 1803, who gave it a name that stuck. He actually called it the Extensive Barrier Reef. Over time this name morphed into The Great Barrier Reef.
• Great – It is the largest and longest coral reef in the world being over 2,300 kms in length and covering an area of approximately 344,400 km²
• Barrier – The reef acts as massive a natural barrier protecting the coastline and is separated from the coastline by a deep channel of water.
• Reef – A natural underwater ridge just below the surface close to a shoreline is called a reef.
Great Barrier Reef - Attractions & Things to DoPlaces, Hotels, Tours
The Great Barrier Reef is a collection of over 2,900 individual coral reefs and 600 idyllic islands located along the north eastern coastline of Australia. Over two million tourists visit the the Great Barrier Reef each year. It is ideal place for snorkelling, scuba diving, swimming sailing, whale and dolphin watching and lots more.
Snorkelling & Diving
The biggest attraction of the Great Barrier Reef is scuba diving and snorkelling amongst the beautiful corals and fish of the reef. There are over 5,000 diving spots ranging from those that are for beginners to those only suitable for the experienced divers. You can get up close to see fish of every size and colour, coral reefs, turtles, sea cucumbers, rays, sharks and lots of other marine life. Most snorkelling and diving is boat-based, where a large boat will take you out to a reef. Some islands, however, do have their own coral reefs around them. The most frequented reefs are those referred to as the Outer Barrier Reef which as easily reached from Cairns.
Best Time to Visit
Weather-Wise: The best time to visit the Great Barrier reef, weather-wise, is between the months of June to November. The weather during this time is mostly mild and dry and the underwater visibility is generally good. December to March, on the other hand, is the wet season when it is oppressively hot and humid with lots of rain and also cyclones.
Take a helicopter or seaplane flight over the reef and see how vast the reef really is from the air while also admire the beautiful islands and inlets in the vicinity.
Islands & Beaches
All along this coast are numerous beautiful beaches for swimming and sunbathing. There are also some great island getaways such as the Whitsunday, Lizard, Fraser, Lady Elliot and Green islands.
Reef Teach, located in Cairns, provides an excellent entertaining and sometimes funny audio-visual presentation of the reef and its numerous inhabitants. The presenters are obviously passionate about their subject and their knowledge is extensive.
If you are really brave you can arrange a tandem sky dive and witness the breathtaking scale of the reef and its islands and beaches. That’s if you aren't screaming your head off while falling to earth at a terrifying speed.
Located to the north of Cairns and Port Douglas the the world heritage listed Daintree Rainforest offers an interesting insight into a tropical Australian rainforest. Some of the trees in this forest are believed to be the oldest in the world. Tour operators offer boat cruises, 4wd and bus tours. A cruise on the Daintree River is an easy way the see the sights of ancient rainforest trees and animals including crocodiles and birds such as the cassowary. Tours depart from Cairns, Port Douglas, Palm Cove, etc./p>
White water rafting is available on a number of rivers close to Cairns. Tully River, Barron River and Russell River have rapids seasonally graded from 1 to 4.
The whale watching season is from May to September when whales migrate along the coast. Dwarf Minke whales appear around May. While Humpback whales appear between mid-July to end-August.
The tablelands are located west to south-south-west of Cairns. It contains cooler tropical rainforest areas, beautiful lakes, waterfalls such as the Millaa Millaa Falls, crater lakes interesting rock formations.
Hot Air Balloons
Hot air ballooning over the Atherton Tablelands is an exhilarating experience. Flights originate from Cairns and Port Douglas and glide silently over the Atherton Tablelands with distant views of the coast and the Great Barrier Reef in the distance. Flights don’t actually fly over the reef.
Great Barrier Reef Location
The Great Barrier Reef (marked in grey on the map) is located in the ocean between 15 to 150 kilometres off the coast of north-eastern Queensland, Australia. It is 2,300 km long and between 60 to 250 kilometres wide.
Getting to the Great Barrier Reef
Australia is a huge continent. Getting to cities and towns close to the Great Barrier Reef requires traveling quite a substantial distance from major populations centres such as Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Getting THERE BY Plane
The quickest way to get to a city near the Great Barrier Reef is by plane. Airlines such as Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar fly into Cairns, Airlie Beach and Townsville from major Australian cities such as Sydney (3 hours), Brisbane (2 hours) and Melbourne (4 hours). Some international carriers such as Air New Zealand, China Eastern and Cathay Pacific also fly into some of the cities near the Great Barrier Reef.
Getting THERE by Car
The Bruce Highway runs along the coast from Brisbane. The distance from Brisbane to Cairns is 1,700 kilometers and will take you about 20 hours driving. The trip from Sydney will take approximately 29 hours of driving time.
Getting THERE by Train
Train journey from Brisbane to Cairns is a two day journey. From other cities are about the same durations as a bus journey.
Getting THERE by Bus
There are frequent services from Brisbane but they take about two days to get to the cities and towns near the Great Barrier Reef.
Getting Out to the Reefs
While some outlying island resorts have reefs close enough to shore to swim out to, the most common means of transportation to one of the thousands of reefs is to catch a fast catamaran. If you are more idyllic you can taking a sailing boat.
There are literally thousands of tour operators around the Great Barrier Reef area. These range from small operators to large ones handling thousands of customers a day.
Viator - A TripAdvisor company, offers the widest range of tours around. There is added benefit in the safety of using a global company.
Cairns (Australians pronounce it as "Cans") is the main city for tours of the Great Barrier Reef. Other things of interest in Cairns are the Cairns Esplanade, Botanic Gardens and Muddy's Playground for kids.
Port Douglas is an upmarket resort town located just north of Cairns. Places of interest close by include Four Mile Beach, the Wildlife Habitat, and reefs such as Opal and Agincourt reefs.
Located at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef is the closest to the population centres such as Brisbane, and Sydney. It is also a good transfer point for Keppel, Lady Elliot and Lady Musgrave islands.
Is almost the northernmost point of the Great Barrier Reef and has its own charm with federation architecture and alfresco dining. Places of interest include Billabong Sanctuary, Jezzine Barracks, Castle Hill and The Strand.
The weather is typically hot and humid during the summer and mild and dry during winter. The average maximum temperature is around 29 degrees Celsius.
What to Wear
Dress in loose cotton, linen or breathable fabrics. Sunglasses are a good idea to protect your eyes. Any footwear suitable for the tropics is fine. Don't forget a broad brimmed hat and sunscreen. Australians are very laid back in their clothing sense. Casual cloths are fine for dinning out.
Australia has extremely strict regulations to ensure your safety and comfort. The Great Barrier Reef, more than other sites in Australia, however, has a number of minor thrills and spills that a visitor should be aware of. These are mostly associated with how you behave in the water. Follow the safety advise given on signs and by trained personnel such as boat operators and lifeguards.
Diving & Snorkelling: The most common problem encountered by people is getting into difficulty while diving or snorkelling. Diving and snorkelling can be very strenuous, especially for the elderly and those suffering from pre-existing medical conditions. It can also be stressful for someone who may be unnerved by having to breath underwater. So don’t do it if you aren't in reasonably good health. Take a glass-bottom boat tour instead!
Sunburn: The Great Barrier Reef is in the tropics. So always apply sunscreen several times a day. Remember, is very easy to get sun burnt on your back while snorkelling.
Sharks: It is very unlikely that you will encounter any sort of shark while at the Great Barrier Reef, especially not the ferocious types you see in the movies. But, they are around and occasionally you may be lucky to see one. There are occasional reports of a shark attack and sometimes these can be fatal. Again exercise caution and take advice from the experts around the area you are planning to swim in.
Due to the baffling effect of the coral reefs there aren't huge surf conditions in the Great Barrier Reef. The ride out the the reefs however can be choppy sometimes. If you suffer from chronic seasickness it is probably a good idea to take some seasickness medication a day prior to going on a boat. You can get this at most pharmacies.
If you don't know how to swim, diving and snorkelling would obviously not be a suitable way for you to see the Great Barrier Reef.
Instead, you could tour the reef in a glass bottom boat, take a semi submersible submarine tour, visit an underwater observatory, go on an ocean walk wearing a special protective helmet and suit, wear floatation equipment such as a flotation jacket or even fly over the reefs in a helicopter or seaplane. Some operators even provide wheelchair access to some of their facilities.
Hotels & Accommodations
There are thousands of accommodations near the Great Barrier Reef. These range from very exclusive 5+ star hotels to basic backpacker hostels and caravan parks. Listed below are just a few of these. The ratings are based on value for money, service and "the experience".
Lizard Island Resort - (4.5 star) With white sandy beaches and crystal clear blue ocean this island resort near Cooktown is a little piece of paradise. Very pricey with excellent food. Snorkelling and diving around the island is a treat.
Pullman Reef Hotel Casino - (4.5 star) - Located in Cairns this hotel offers lovely views of the bay. The rooms are spacious, the prices reasonable staff are friendly and the food is good. The casino downstairs makes it a bit noisy sometimes.
Cairns Coconut Holiday Resort - (4 star) - Set in 28 acres a short distance out of Cairns the water park will keep the kids occupied for hours. Accommodation is in private cabanas or tents. The resort also has two swimming pools, a mini golf course and tennis courts. Prices are reasonable.
Cascade Motel Townsville - 3.5 star) - A great motel ten minutes out of Townsville. The staff are extremely friendly and helpful. The rooms clean and tidy rooms and great prices too.
Many tour operators have multi-lingual crew members and tour guides who can assist overseas passengers. They may all have published material in foreign languages such as Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
Our Other Fantastic Pages
Australia has some of the most unusual animals in the world.
Great Barrier Reef
Located in Australia it is the world's largest coral reef.
The Aboriginals were the first people to come to Australia.
The Outback is vast and breathtakingly beautiful.
Waltzing Matilda is Australia's favourite song.