Great Barrier Reef

Whether it is the intricate, industrious small creature seen close-up, metres down below the surface, the breeching whale, the pod of leaping dolphins, or the panorama afforded from the air of coral ramparts reaching away to the horizon, the Great Barrier Reef is a constant source of amazement, amusement and humbling grandeur.

Home to the greatest variety of flora and fauna species found in any one location in the world, the Great Barrier Reef region extends over 2,300 kilometres along the east coast of Australia, from the tip of Cape York Peninsula to south of the Tropic of Capricorn.

So amazing is this natural feature that it was decided in 1975 that nearly all of the area known as the Reef Region should become the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. At 344,000 square kilometres this is the biggest marine park in the world. In 1981, the Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage List, the first of the current 19 Australian sites so inscribed.

Contrary to popular belief, the Great Barrier Reef is not one continuous coral structure running unbroken along the coast; rather, it weaves a tapestry of over 2900 individual reefs, ranging in size from less than one hectare to more than 100 square kilometres. Within its bounds, there are 350 coral islands (cays), 130 of which support vegetation and birdlife, and 618 continental islands. These are basically the tops of former mainland mountains separated from the land when rising prehistoric seas flooded valleys and plains. Perhaps the best examples are the Whitsunday Group, off Proserpine, and Lizard Island north of Cooktown. It is on these islands, with their colourful and easily accessible fringing reefs, that most of the major resorts have been developed.

For its entire length, the Great Barrier Reef flirts with the coastline, sometimes coming within tantalising sight for those onshore, in other places, marching out of sight over the horizon, sitting right on the edge of the continental shelf.

Between the Reef and the mainland is a relatively well protected waterway, with the Reef living up to its name by providing a barrier to the swells and currents of the Coral Sea. This channel provides the shipping route to the busy ports of Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and Gladstone.

Our present day living reef, estimated to be about 10,000 years old, is young in terms of the reef's structural history. The corals you see are no more than a thin living veneer on the surface of a hard limestone foundation of dead corals and plants which are between 2 million and 18 million years old.

Exploring the reef is an exhilarating experience. Cruise and dive operators are highly conscious of eco-tourism and the sustainability of this most beautiful natural phenomenon. By educating visitors and helping them to understand the Reef, an appreciation and desire for preservation is founded. Marine biologists accompany most reef trips to interpret this natural phenomena, and all cruise company staff exhibit a special pride and respect in the reef’s ecology.

Most reef trips are designed with both swimmers and non-swimmers in mind with diving, snorkelling, semi-submersible or underwater observatory viewing. Alternatively, a bird’s eye view from the air of the magnificent reefs on a scenic flight in a light aircraft, seaplane or helicopter is a pleasant aspect to take. A day spent discovering the beauty and splendour of the reef is one that will stay with you forever.

For more information contact the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority at www.gbrmpa.gov.au



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