The largest reef system in the world – so massive it can be seen from outer space – Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is composed of over 2900 individual reefs and 900 islands that stretch 1600 miles through the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland in northeast Australia.
Named one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the reef is a state icon of Queensland and a World Heritage site.
Much of the reef is protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park which is charged with limiting the impact caused by human use, including tourism, fishing and diving. The reef itself is composed of literally billions of tiny organisms known as coral polyps, and supports a diversity of life including numerous vulnerable and endangered species. Thirty species of whales, dolphins and porpoises have been found in the waters along the Great Barrier Reef, and six species of turtles travel to the reef to breed. Shark, stingray, skates and chimaera live on the reef in large numbers representing the 125+ species observed there. The reef is also a home to giant clams, cone snails, a variety of pipefish, and 9 different species of seahorse. Hundreds of species of sea and shorebirds visit the reef and nest on the nearby islands, as do the saltwater crocodiles making their homes nearby in mangrove and salt marshes along the coast. In the southern sections of the Great Barrier Reef, more than a dozen species of sea snakes live in the warm waters at depths of up to 160 feet. The coral species inhabiting the reef are as numerous – both hard and soft corals of over 400 different species.
Aboriginal Australians have been living in the area for more than 40,000 years, joined by the Torres Straight Islanders 10,000 years ago. For these clan groups the Great Barrier Reef is an important part of their culture. More than two million people visit the Great Barrier Reef annually, so tourism is a huge source of income as well as a cause for concern regarding harm to the delicate ecosystem of the reef. Australia’s goal is to share this great natural wonder with the world while making the impact of visitors ecologically sustainable.
A variety of boat tours of the reef are available from single day excursions to longer voyages. Glass-bottom boats and underwater observatories are especially popular, as are helicopter tours over the vast expanse of the reef. The most popular activity on the Great Barrier Reef is diving and snorkeling and the outer rim of the reef is favored for these sports because of the excellent water quality.