what is the great barrier reef?

The Great Barrier Reef runs for more than 2300km along the northeast coast of Queensland from Bundaberg in the south to the tip of Cape York in the north. It is the largest natural feature on earth and can be seen from space.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s biggest single structure made by live organisms, billions of tiny creatures known as coral polyps have built the reef over the last 600,000 years.

The polyps increase in diameter from 1-2cm per year and grow vertically from 1-15cm per year. But the polyps can’t grow below a depth of 150m due to their need for sunlight.

Many companies in the Cairns region offer organised tours to the Great Barrier Reef … from learn-to-dive courses, day cruises and extended reef and sailing trips to visits to fascinating underwater observatories, pontoons anchored on the reef and island stays.

history of tourism on the great barrier reef

The Great Barrier Reef became a World Heritage Area in 1981 and is currently managed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) which covers recreational use, commercial use, scientific and conservation issues and protection.

About 1.9 million tourists and about 4.9 million recreational visitors travel on the Great Barrier Reef every year. The marine tourism industry, recreational users and the GBRMPA have developed rules and regulations to ensure the reef remains “great”.

reef tax on the great barrier reef

One of these tools is the Environmental Management Charge or “reef tax”, which is payable by most commercial operators granted permits by the GBRMPA to access the reef and includes tourist operators.

Visitors to the reef are liable to pay their percentage of the charge but it is usually included in the price of the reef trip or dive tour. The funds from the charge are applied directly to the management of the Great Barrier Reef and include education, research and ranger patrols.

threats to the great barrier reef

There are some environmental threats to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the major concern being climate change. This has led to mass coral bleaching because of rising water temperatures. A report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the Great Barrier Reef was at grave risk due to climate change.

Pollution from the mainland is also a considerable concern, particularly farm run-off that travels down the rivers in the region. Water quality on the Great Barrier Reef has declined and led to the growth of algae that competes with the coral polyps for light and oxygen.

Reef predator, the Crown of Thorns starfish has also damaged the Great Barrier Reef in previous years, attacking the coral polyps. However an active program by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has led to a reduction in numbers and an improvement in managing the impact the starfish has on the reef.

Despite all this, the Great Barrier Reef remains one of the mustsee destinations in the world with millions of people visiting the reef each year in a sustainable manner.

learn about the great barrier reef

A great way to learn more about the Great Barrier Reef before visitors head out is to drop into Reef Teach. This is an education centre dedicated to informing visitors about the wonders of the reef and how best to protect it while enjoying its beauty.

The nightly live presentations include easy-to-digest facts and figures, fabulous images of the reef and its denizens, coral displays and encounters with unique marine animals. The Reef Teach team will also explain the background to the eco-tourism guidelines and how to best experience the Great Barrier Reef.

Reef Teach is located on Spence St and operates from Tuesday to Saturday evenings (Closed Sunday and Monday evening) 6.30-8.30pm. $18 per adult, $9 per child, $45 per family (2ad, 2ch under 14 years)

Glorious colours: The Great Barrier Reef is home to an estimated 1500 species of fish. The reef is made up of millions of coral polyps that create the brilliantly coloured shapes that grow about 150m below the surface. Image by Tourism Queensland

conservation on the great barrier reef

The Species Conservation Unit of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority looks after conservation issues for species indigenous to the reef and focuses on dugongs, marine turtles, whales and dolphins. The unit also provides advice to tourism operators and locals who use the reef on how to reduce risks to endangered species.

About 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises are sighted on the Great Barrier Reef including the dwarf minke whale, the Indo- Pacific humpback dolphin and the humpback whale.

Star of the current humpback whale population is Migaloo, a rare albino whale who visits the Great Barrier Reef every year as part of the annual migration.

Usually visiting around June, Migaloo is one of about 8000 humpbacks who migrate from Antarctica each year. During the past three years, Migaloo has been a star attraction for tourists in the region and there are whale-watching tours available during the migration period.

The State Government has declared Migaloo a “special interest animal” which restricts people from going closer than 500m to the whale without written permission.

>> Check out our photo gallery of Migaloo the White Whale

There are six species of sea turtle that visit the Great Barrier Reef to breed, attracted by the 15 species of seagrass growing on the reef. The green sea turtles have two distinct populations, one in the northern waters and one in the southern waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

A large population of saltwater crocodiles lives in the mangrove and saltmarshes on the northern coast of the Great Barrier Reef and can sometimes be seen on the coral reefs closest to the coast.

>> Check out our great photo gallery of crocodiles in Cairns

For birdwatchers, the Great Barrier Reef is a goldmine with around 200 species of birds - including 40 species of waterbirds - living there. This range includes the white-bellied sea eagle and the roseate tern. The majority of nesting sites are on islands in the northern and southern regions of the Great Barrier Reef and there are about 1.4-1.7 million birds breeding on the sites.

Under the water, the Great Barrier Reef is home to about 125 species of sharks, stingrays and skates. Around 5000 species of mollusc have been found on the reef and include the giant clam and cone snails.

Other interesting animals on the Great Barrier Reef include 17 species of sea snakes, but they are more common on the southern reaches of reef. None of these sea snakes are endangered species.

One of the main attractions of the Great Barrier Reef for visitors and experienced divers alike are the more than 1500 species of fish that live here. Species include the clownfish, red bass, redthroat emperor and many species of snapper and coral trout.

The colourful reef fish live among 400 species of hard and soft corals that can be found on the Great Barrier Reef. The coral spawning after the full moon in October is a popular attraction for divers from around the world. The outer Great Barrier Reef coral spawns in November and December and is just as spectacular if more difficult to access.