The Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef ecosystem on Earth. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s the biggest structure on the planet made by living organisms.
The 2,900 individual coral reefs and 900 islands that make up the reef are home to a rich and colourful array of marine wildlife. This beautiful natural wonder is a popular visitor attraction for snorkellers and divers.
The reefs fall into three categories:
1. Fringing, which occur around the edges of the continental islands that were once a part of the mainland
2. Ribbon or outer, reefs which grow on the edge of the continental shelf
3. Platform or patch reefs, which support a cay, or island formed by sedimentary debris swept onto the reef
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park stretches along the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland in Australia’s northeast. It is 2,300km (1,400mi) long and covers an area of 344,400km².
The reefs themselves are made up of corals, which are tiny polyps that join together to form massive colourful and intricately shaped colonies. There are more than 400 different species of corals.
These coral reefs are home to a diverse and abundant range of animals and plants. There are more than 1,500 species of reef fish, from ‘nemos’ and butterfly fish to wrasse, damsel, angelfish and cod, as well as friendly reef sharks and rays. You’ll find six varieties of turtle on the Great Barrier Reef, and resident and visiting marine mammals like dolphins, dugongs and whales.
The outer reef is truly an underwater paradise, with beautifully warm and clear waters to explore by snorkelling near the surface, or diving deeper to see more incredible species. You could be diving among coral gardens, over columns and pinnacles, or along reef walls – the reef environments from ribbons to fringes and platforms are so diverse.
The Great Barrier Reef is a vast and vibrant ecosystem and millions of visitors enjoy its natural wonders every year. However, like all coral reefs around the world, climate change and other environmental threats put it under pressure.
Higher water temperatures can lead to coral bleaching – a situation where the algae that live within coral (and produce those beautiful colours) get stressed, start to release toxins that poison the coral, and get kicked out. This doesn’t necessarily kill the coral, but if water temperatures stay too high over time, the coral will eventually die.
The reef is managed and cared for by GBRMPA, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. They work alongside scientists, government departments, traditional owners, tourism operators and individuals to protect the reef from environmental threats and preserve it from future generations.
All day tours to the reef incur an EMC or Environmental Management Charge which goes directly to GBRMPA to fund the day-to-day management of the park.
If you’re visiting the Great Barrier Reef, choose an eco-certified operator that encourages sustainable snorkelling and diving practices and supports conservation initiatives (like Divers Den).
While you’re at the reef, be respectful! Don’t touch the coral or any wildlife, use reef-safe sunscreen and take any rubbish home with you.
Back home, try to reduce the amount of plastic in your life. Plastics can endanger marine life and pollute our oceans. And if you eat fish, make sure it’s from a sustainable source.
Exploring other areas of the Great Barrier Reef
Our Day and Overnight trips visit some of the best areas of the reef but you can explore areas north of Cairns and into the Coral Sea on expedition liveaboard. Multi-night Liveaboard Cairns dive trips on board Spirit of Freedom travel several hundreds of kilometres north of city each week and visit famous dive sites in the Coral Sea and through the vibrant Ribbon Reefs. These trips start from 3 nights, with the full round trip back to Cairns taking 7 nights to complete.