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Great Barrier Reef
Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrThe Great Barrier Reef’s figures are staggering – covering 132,974 square miles, it houses 3,000 individual coral reefs and 600 islands, together with 1,500 fish species, and is the only living organism that can be seen from space. One of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, it is located in the warm waters of the Coral Sea and was famously home to Marlin and his son, Nemo, in the Disney/Pixar movie Finding Nemo. It lies off the eastern coast of Australia, extending 1,429 miles from Bundaberg in the south to the most northern tip of Queensland . It is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem with 70 ‘bioregions’ and an astounding biodiversity.
HistoryThe park was created in 1975 and inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1981 for its ‘outstanding universal value’. A site is considered worthy of this accolade if it is ‘so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity”.
In 2007, it was also placed on Australia’s National Heritage List.
While the park is managed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, it does so in conjunction with the Government of Queensland and the reef’s traditional owners - more than 70 clans of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are the indigenous people of Australia. It is thought that their arrival in Australia dates back 40,000 years and that they fished and hunted throughout the waters of the Great Barrier Reef in outrigger canoes. Indigenous cultural sites include middens and elaborate rock paintings that are found on many islands within the park.
Captain James Cook was one of the first Europeans who struggled to navigate the reef’s waters in the 18th century and around 30 shipwrecks of historical significance are testament to the challenge it provided to early explorers.
The reef is thought to date back as many as 20 million years with generation after generation of living coral dying and compacting into great stone walls upon which new corals, sponges, and anemones grow, providing a home to the vast array of marine species that have evolved. The reef’s growth has been interrupted by the Ice Age and low sea level events, with the current growth dated to around 8,000 years ago. Coral cores indicated when sea levels dropped during glacial periods, the reef was exposed as limestone hills before sea levels again rose, forming islands, cays and new coral growth.
Flora and FaunaHard corals provide the support structure for the reef and are formed when coral polyp colonies form supportive limestone skeletons. In contrast, soft corals are more flexible and fluid, with jelly-like tentacles supported by limestone spicules. Their brightly colored branches provide homes to many species of fish, prawns, and sea slugs. To deter predators, soft corals often secrete poisonous chemicals that make them inedible.
In addition to the 600 soft and hard corals that structure the reef, the park also includes 772 square miles of mangroves and 2,317 square miles of seagrass beds. Both of these ecosystems are integrated with the reef, filtering water, and providing protected areas for fish to breed, and are vital for the reef’s survival.
While it is famous for it’s diverse array of colorful fish, the reef is also home to 3,000 different types of Mollusc, 630 species of Starfish and Urchins, 133 varieties of Sharks and Rays, more than 30 species of Whales and Dolphins, 6 species of Marine Turtles, as well as deadly Crocodiles that peruse the waters and Seabirds that roam the skies.
The Great Barrier Reef is home to a number of endangered species that are heavily protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Six of the world’s seven endangered sea turtle species are found in the park, along with the Dugong, or Sea Cow, that grazes on seagrass beds. Its slow breeding rate makes it particularly vulnerable. The world’s largest sea mammal, the endangered Blue Whale, also migrates through the Great Barrier Reef's waters
Snorkeling and DivingThe Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia’s premier tourist destinations with 2 million tourists each year, generating around $3 billion USD. It is one of the greatest snorkeling and diving locations in the world with water temperatures between 75 °F and 86 °F (80°-90° Fahrenheit) and visibility of up to 98 feet. Popular sites include Ribbon Reef, Osprey Reef, Heron Island, and the SS Yongala wreck. The reef can be visited aboard dive boats or day charters from a number of major centers, including Cairns and Townsville. There are a number of PADI accredited dive shops that offer training and equipment hire throughout the reef.
For non-divers, there is also excellent snorkeling within walking distance of some of the country’s best beaches. Great Keppel Island , Langford Island and Haslewood Island all offer great opportunities to get up close and personal with the area's marine life, without having to take a tank. Glass-bottomed boats and underwater observatories are also popular options for those that prefer not to get wet, while helicopter flights are available to view the reef’s extent from the air.
Ecologically sustainable tourism is encouraged within the park with boat numbers limited and tourists educated on the reef’s importance and how they can help protect it.
The tropical rainforests of the Daintree, Cape Tribulation, and Mossman Gorge are within easy access, offering the chance to spot wild fauna amongst spectacularly rich ecosystems. The idyllic archipelago of the Whitsunday Island lie within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. These 74 islands not only offer incredible beaches and accommodation to suit all budgets, but are a great place from which the park can be explored. Back on land, the waterfalls of the Atherton Tablelands , such as Josephine Falls and Wallaman Falls, make for interesting day trips, as do the explosion of ‘big’ sculptures that are features of Australian country towns along the coast. A number of zoos and parks nearby also offer the opportunity to get up close and personal with Australia’s native wildlife, including koala cuddling and snake holding.
Climate ChangeClimate change is the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef’s survival with rising sea temperatures and levels, together with ocean acidification (caused by an increased uptake of carbon dioxide), hazardous to the delicate balance of this ecosystem. The reef experienced severe coral bleaching events in 1998 and 2002, linked to El Nino and abnormally high sea-surface temperatures. Under such conditions, corals may expel their zooxanthellae which are responsible for giving coral their coloration. Ongoing sediment, nutrient, and pesticide run-off from onshore farming activities and flood events have resulted in algal blooms and the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish epidemic that has been highly destructive in recent years. These densely-spined animals feed on coral and, under normal conditions, regulate coral growth. However, when numbers increase dramatically as a result of increased nutrients, their grazing can leave large expanses of reef bare.
Current government plans to increase shipping through the reef, with the world’s biggest coal port at Abbott Point in close proximity, also has the potential to cause irreparable damage to the reef, particularly if accidental oil spills occur. This is a highly controversial topic amongst conservation groups and the wider Australian public.
Overfishing has also resulted in a decline of fish species in recent years, prompting an increase in designated off-limit areas to allow stocks to recover.
While the Great Barrier Reef is a highly sensitive area exposed to significant tourism activity and human-induced pollution, conservation groups, landholders, scientists, and government agencies are working in close collaboration to ensure its survival for future generations.
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Author: Pip23. Last updated: Feb 17, 2015