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Great Barrier Reef, a Watery Wonderland of Coral Reefs and Tropical Islands

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The Great Barrier Reef, the greatest single tourist attraction in Queensland, is a wonderland of coral atolls, reefs and islands; indeed it is the world's largest and the most famous coral formation and is so large that it is the only natural structure visible from space. The entire reef is now protected as part of a World Heritage Park. The reef has its problems, though, with natural phenomena such as cyclones, or predators such as the crown of thorns starfish, which at odd times multiply and causes severe damage to sections of reef. Visitors and scientists come from all over the world to study and admire this magnificent and beautiful marine paradise.

Most maps of the world show a dotted line off the northeast coast of Australia, running from the continent's waistline all the way north of Papua New Guinea. Labeled the "Great Barrier Reef," it encompasses a series of coral reefs, shoals, cays and islands-the biggest collection of coral in the world 2,012 km/1,250 miles long and ranging in width from 16 km/10 miles to 241 km/150 miles.


Most off the vast area enclosed by the Great Barrier Reef is water. A long series of detached reefs-true coral islands (some submerged, many awash with booming surf, a very few topped with sand and perhaps some shrubbery and trees)-define and eastern edge or Outer Reef.


Between the mainland and the Outer Reef is a north-south passage dotted with rock-and-soil islands, once part of the mainland's coast ranges. Most of these larger, high-rise islands (tops of partly submerged mountains) also have coral reefs in the water around them. Only Green and Heron islands and the Low Isles are true coral cays; Lizard Island, though situated on the Outer Reef, is a continental island.


At its northern end (along the Cape York Peninsula) the Outer Reef is barely 10 km/6 miles offshore; to the south, opposite Gladstone, the reef lies 100 km/62 miles or more from the coast.


Great Barrier Reef in Queensland

Great Barrier Reef Ecology


The unassuming architects of this "eighth wonder of the world" are coral polyps, colonies of tiny anemone-like creatures thriving in the tropical waters off the Queensland coast. Succeeding generations secrete protective limestone shells upon the skeletons of their forbearers, but at such a slow rate that the creation of the Great Barrier Reef took millions of years.


As in other habitats, a fierce, competitive, yet finely balanced food chain exists among the many creatures of the reef. Sharks and turtles feed on lesser marine life; the survivors feed on still smaller creatures, and so on.


Unfortunately, something went very haywire in nature's balance of feeder and food on the reef. A sudden incursion of crown-of-thorns starfish, the coral's worst enemy, wiped out entire coral communities. Government skin divers fought and destroyed about 50,000 of the spiny invaders before too big a dent was made in the reef. According to some environmentalists, the imbalance was caused by the over-hunting of the giant triton clam (a natural enemy of the starfish and prized for its shell) and by pollutants carried to reef waters by Queensland rivers.


When To Visit the Great Barrier Reef


Time and tide are important if you're going to make the most of any reef visit. Weather-wise, late August through November is best for cruising, "reefing" (wandering along the exposed coral bottom), and viewing; some say May is good. At all times, winds are unpredictable. Caution is advised from late November through March when coastal beaches can be plagued with venomous sea wasps (jelly fish); and January through March is monsoon season, with winds at their worst.


Great Barrier Reef of the shore of Queensland, Australia


The reef puts on its best monthly show during the full or new moon, when the tide is at its lowest. Tide tables are published in advance for the year. For reef walking, check tide depths; low tide on the reef usually means a foot or so of water - more than 1.5 feet makes difficult of the underwater wonders of the reef; in some places, boats and semi-submersible viewing vessels make it easy to see coral while staying dry.


Great Barrier Reef Offerings


Island resorts between the mainland and Outer Reef -as well as numerous scheduled cruises, sightseeing trips, and package tours- make it easy to enjoy the wondrous Great Barrier Reef. Planning your stay is important. Visitors can decide on a cruise among the islands, a flight around the reef, or a resort stay at one or more islands.


Reef walking is a revelation to those who have never done it, a chance to actually see coral formations and marine life first hand. Giant sea clams spit water at you, plants shrink inward if touched, and sea anemones wave wickedly. Best color and formation are at the reef's outer edge, a solid coral runway interspersed with pools of stranded multi-colored fish.


When exploring, wear rubber-soled shoes -coral cuts are painful, infect easily, and heal slowly. Walk carefully and test the coral for solidity before putting your weight on it. Do not disturb formations, and replace anything turned over. If you plan to touch anything, it's a good idea to wear gloves. And don't break off a piece of coral, it's protected by law.


Cruising the Great Barrier Reef


One-day cruises to the Outer Reef depart regularly from island resorts as well as Queensland coastal towns. Great Barrier Reef cruises that last 4 to 5 days in length, usually sail through the Whitsunday Passage calling at resort island beaches and exploring reef areas.


Great Barrier Reef Flight-seeing


Many visitors discover that the most dramatic way to experience the beauty of the reef, other than gliding through its waters as a skin diver, is to skim the surface in a low-flying plane or helicopter.


Between the Queensland coastal cities and the Outer Reef, passengers get a memorable view of transparent, iridescent waters revealing the mass of coral beneath. Thousands of islands, heaps of coral sand, and lagoon-crowned reefs sparking like gems can be seen along the deep channel-threaded waterway.


Seaplanes fly out to the reef at low tide. Reef walkers are transferred to a boat and ferried to a point on the coral platform where they can step ashore.


Underwater Observatories of the Great Barrier Reef


Visitors who want to see the reef's underwater life without getting their feet wet will enjoy the Underwater Coral Observatory adjacent to Hook Island in Whitsunday Passage.


Sunk in the midst of inner coral reefs, the steel chamber of the all-weather, air-conditioned, carpeted observatory has a viewing floor 10 meters/32 feet below deck level. Through its huge glass windows, visitors enjoy an extraordinary underwater view of coral polyps, exotically colored tropical fish, and other sea life, all undisturbed in their natural habitat.


Another coral observatory is on Green Island, off Cairns. It is not as large as the Underwater Coral Observatory, but it boasts view of even more spectacular formations and reef life.


Great Barrier Reef of Australia


Great Barrier Reef Island Life


On the resort islands, life revolves around the sea, the tides, the reef, and cruising. Varied activities mingle to create a fascinating vacation. You can go reefing (if the weather and tides are right) or sports fishing; sailing, windsurfing, or snorkeling; take a lazy swim or go skin diving; go for a long walk on the beach or climb hills lush with pine forests, rain forests, or bush; do a little bird watching; or just sit under a coconut palm and watch the surf.


Evening entertainment ranges from luaus to nightclub shows and dancing. Some islands feature guided reef walking tours and bird watching. Some resorts offer tennis, golf, and even horseback riding.


Away from the hotel, you will find your island much the way nature left it. A National Parks Act protects flora and fauna; trails are well-kept and markers unobtrusive; native bush and birds are undisturbed.


Great Barrier Reef for the Sports-Minded


Island resorts and gateway cities offer a wide range of activities for the ocean lover. Game fishing is spectacular; diving gets you down into the life of the reef; and boating on your own lends mobility.


Game Fishing in the Great Barrier Reef


Whether you've been fishing for years or have yet to experience the thrill of your first strike, the Great Barrier Reef ranks among the world's best places to enjoy the sport. An ever-increasing number of game fishers, attracted by record catches of black marlin and sailfish, are drawn to this area.


The major deep-sea fishing center for Great Barrier Reef waters is Cairns, with its big boating complex. Townsville and Innisfail are well equipped for the sport, and several Great Barrier Reef resorts operate game-fishing launches.


More than a dozen species of game fish flourish in reef waters: barracuda, black marlin, sailfish, wahoo, giant trevally, yellowfin tuna, dogtooth tuna, cobia, rainbow runner, barramundi, threadfin, Australian salmon, small tuna, and Spanish mackerel (kingfish).


Spanish mackerel increase in coastal waters between Gladstone and Mackay from April to June, and farther north between Townsville and Cairns from July to September, when sailfish also seem to peak. Giant black marlin (1,000 to 2,000 lbs.) begin to appear at Cairns in late August and September, continuing until early December. Barracuda season usually starts in August and peaks in December.


Diving in the Great Barrier Reef


Getting down along the reef appeals to many divers. The water temperature is pleasant, and the underwater world is alive with tempting coral displays and multitudinous marine life. Island resorts often supply equipment, including air for tanks. In addition to island dive-boats and day dive-boats departing from the mainland, there are live-on-board dive-boats for longer trips.


Boating on Your Own in the Great Barrier Reef


All major ports on the Queensland coast, and many island resorts, offer vessels for charter. The largest number of boat rentals in northern Queensland are found between Shute Harbour and Cairns.


After a checkout of your sailing expertise and experience you can self-skipper a boat with a "bareboat" charter or participate in a skippered program.


Great Barrier Reef Marine Park


The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park protects a large part of Australia's Great Barrier Reef from activities that would damage it. Fishing and the removal of artifacts or wildlife (fish, coral, sea shells etc) is strictly regulated, and commercial shipping traffic must stick to certain specific defined shipping routes that avoid the most sensitive areas of the park.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) are the administrators of the park. They issue licences for use of the restricted areas of the park, inspect these areas for illegal use and maintain public moorings etc. GBRMPA is financed partly by a tax levied on the permit-holders passengers. Currently this is AUD$4.50 per day per passenger (to a maximum of $13.50 per trip).

In 1975, the Government of Australia enacted the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, which created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and defined what acts were prohibited on the Reef. The Australian Government also has recognised the ecological significance of this Park by its inclusion in the nation's Biodiversity Action Plan. The Government of Australia manages the reef through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and in partnership with the Government of Queensland, to ensure that it is widely understood and used in a sustainable manner. A combination of zoning, management plans, permits, education and incentives (such as eco-tourism certification) are used in the effort to conserve the Great Barrier Reef.

As many species of the Great Barrier Reef are migratory, many international, national, and interstate conventions or pieces of legislation must be taken into account when strategies for conservation are made.

Some international conventions that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park must follow are: the Bonn Convention, RAMSAR (for the Bowling Green Bay National Park site), CITES, JAMBA and CAMBA. Some national legislation that the Park must follow are: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity, Australia’s Oceans Policy, National Strategy for the Conservation of Australian Species and Communities Threatened with Extinction. Some state legislation that the Park must follow are: Nature Conservation Act 1992, Marine Parks Act 1982, Fisheries Act 1994, Queensland Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 1994.

For example, the Queensland Government has enacted several plans attempting to regulate fishing. The East Coast Trawl Management Plan 1999 aimed to regulate trawling through limiting the times when trawling is permitted and restricting gear used. The Fisheries (Coral Reef Fin Fish Fishery) Management Plan 2003 aimed at reducing the annual commercial catch to 1996 levels, disallowing fishing when the fish are spawning and increasing the minimum legal size of fish.

The Great Barrier Reef was selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981. On July 1, 2004 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park became the largest protected sea area in the world when the Australian Government increased the areas protected from extractive activities (such as fishing) from 4.6% to 33.3% of the park. As of 2006, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument is the largest protected marine area in the world. The management committee draws inspiration from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's management strategies.

In 2006, a review was undertaken of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. Some recomendations of the review are that there should be no further zoning plan changes until 2013, and that every five years, a peer-reviewed Outlook Report should be published, examining the health of the Great Barrier Reef, the management of the Reef, and environmental pressures.


Great Barrier Reef


A deeper look into the Great Barrier Reef


Australia is custodian of the world's largest system of interconnected coral reefs, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Located off the northern coast of the State of Queensland, the system stretches for 2500 km (1550 miles), from approximately Latitude 10 degrees S to 24 degrees S. It contains innumerable coral growths rising from many metres below sea level towards the low-water mark, forming between 2500 and 3000 identifiable reef shoals locally surmounted by sand or coral rubble constituting at least 350 islands. Mapping and defining these separate reef areas and islands is an on-going activity given the vastness of the GBR and the ever-changing character of its surface, constantly subjected to the forces of current, wind, wave and tide.


When looked at in detail, the GBR is a mixture of different reef types reflecting oceanic conditions, tidal heights, width of continental shelf and distance from land. There exist to the north true ribbon or barrier reefs, elongated structures sitting atop the edge of the continental shelf and breached by narrow 'passes' through which tidal waters flow. More common are the platform and smaller patch reefs located along the length of the GBR. Some of these possess sandy 'cays' or islands at their northern ends. These are the 'low islands', partly fringed by mangroves in northern regions, and home to millions of nesting seabirds and seasonally visited by several species of marine turtles when the females come ashore to deposit their eggs in the sand. The windward or south-east corners of some of these reefs contain very large accumulations of cemented coral rubble cast up by cyclonic storms.


In addition there are the 'high islands', about two thirds of all GBR islands, formed of continental rock around which grow fringing reefs. Where rivers are absent, these reefs may also grow out from the mainland coast into the shallow waters of the GBR.


The GBR is not the product of a single geologic event. Slow subsidence of the continental margin combined with many oscillations of sea level during the 'ice ages' (or Quaternary Period), allowed colonies of marine plants and animals to grow on exposed limestone outcrops as the rising sea inundated the continental shelf during each episode of glacial-ice disintegration. These colonies have hard skeletons which add to the limestone of previous periods of growth, resulting in sequences of reef development and exposure repeated over the past two million or so years. The latest episode of marine transgression reached present sea level, or perhaps a metre (3 feet) higher, around 6000 years ago. Consequently the most recent geologic unit constituting the GBR is only rarely more than 10 metres (33 feet) thick and less than 10,000 years old.


A cauldron of life


The GBR is vast, both in area and in the number of living organisms which make their home in it. Its waters are bathed in warmth from solar radiation and the south-flowing East Australian current which sweeps out of the Coral Sea. Many discrete habitats occur within the reef system, which is home to 1500Ð 2000 species of fish, some 4000 mollusc types, abundant marine mammals, sea grasses, mangroves and other organisms including 350 hard or reef-building corals. Individual coral fragments comprise numerous species of algae, both soft and hard, along with burrowing worms and shells.


The waters of the reef, while comparatively low in nutrients, are capable of supporting an incredible wonderland of life, a great joy to those who observe from the air, peer through glass-bottomed boats, or more intimately, find themselves beneath the surface immersed in a world of contrasting colour and movement. However, turbid river waters bring soil eroded from cane fields and the grazed hinterland, now increasingly seen as disturbing the harmony of the dynamic reef system and perhaps encouraging outbreaks of the dreaded, coral-browsing crown-of-thorns starfish.


Management problems


Although in the past pressures to mine reef limestone and drill for oil threatened the integrity of the GBR, the declaration in 1975 of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, along with agreements of cooperation between Commonwealth and State governments, have led to more considered management and planning that should benefit future generations. However, in 2001, new proposals for oil exploration adjacent to the reef look set to once more become an issue. Tourism is a major industry in coastal Queensland, fuelled in no small way by the GBR. Strict zonings control the activities of tourism operations, fishing and shipping, but there is always the threat posed by a large ship running aground within reef channels, a threat that became real in late 2000 with the grounding of a Malaysian freighter. Named a World Heritage area in 1981, the park is 344,000 squ. km (133,000 squ. miles) of stunning beauty and diversity visited by millions each year. Its attractions support local and regional economies on a scale that is not represented elsewhere in Australia.


Similar View of the Great Barrier Reef of Queensland, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system, composed of roughly 3,000 individual reefs and 900 islands, that stretch for 2,600 kilometres (1,616 mi) covering an area of approximately 344,400 km2. The reef is located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland in northeast Australia. A large part of the reef is protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space and is sometimes referred to as the single largest organism in the world. In reality, it is made up of many millions of tiny organisms, known as coral polyps. The Great Barrier Reef was also selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981. CNN has labelled it one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The Queensland National Trust has named it a state icon of Queensland.

Geology and Geography

The Reef Research Centre, a Cooperative Research Centre, has found coral 'skeleton' deposits that date back half a million years. Corals have been growing in the region for as long as 25 million years, but have not always formed coral reefs.

Dating discrepancies stem from the fact that reefs fluctuate (grow and recede) as the sea level changes. They can increase in diameter from 1 to 2 cm/year, and grow vertically anywhere from 1 to 15 cm/year; however, they are limited to a height of 150 meters due to their need for sunlight, and cannot grow above sea level.

According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the current, living reef structure is believed to have begun growing on an older platform about 20,000 years ago. The Australian Institute of Marine Science agrees, which places the beginning of the growth of the current reef at the time of the Last Glacial Maximum. At around that time, the sea level was 120 metres lower than it is today. The land that formed the substrate of the Great Barrier Reef was a coastal plain with some larger hills (some of which were themselves remnants of older reefs).

From 20,000 years ago until 6,000 years ago, the sea level rose steadily. As the sea level rose, the corals could grow higher on the hills of the coastal plain. By around 13,000 years ago the sea level was 60 metres less than the present day, and corals began to grow around the hills of the coastal plain - by then, continental islands. As the sea level rose further still, most of the continental islands were submerged. The corals could then overgrow the hills, to form the present cays and reefs. Sea level on the Great Barrier Reef has not risen significantly in the last 6,000 years. The research outcomes funded by the CRC Reef Research Centre estimates the age of the present, living reef structure at 6,000 to 8,000 years old.

In the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef, ribbon reefs and deltaic reefs have formed - these reef structures are not found in the rest of the Great Barrier Reef system. The remains of an ancient barrier reef similar to the Great Barrier Reef can be found in The Kimberley, a northern region of Western Australia.

Species of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef supports a diversity of life, including many vulnerable or endangered species. 30 species of whales, dolphins, or porpoises have been recorded in the Great Barrier Reef, including the Dwarf Minke Whale, Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin and the Humpback Whale. Also, large populations of dugongs live there. Six species of sea turtle come to the reef to breed – Green Sea Turtle, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Hawksbill turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Flatback Turtle, and Olive Ridley. Over 200 species of birds (including 40 species of waterbirds) live on the Great Barrier Reef, including the White-bellied Sea Eagle and Roseate Tern. 5000 species of mollusc have been recorded on the Great Barrier Reef including the Giant Clam and various nudibranches and cone snails. 17 species of sea snake live on the Great Barrier Reef. More than 1500 species of fish live on the reef, including the Clownfish, Red Bass, Red-Throat Emperor, and several species of Snapper and Coral Trout. 400 species of corals, both hard corals and soft corals are found on the reef. There are 15 species of seagrass near the reef that attract the dugongs and sea turtles. 500 species of marine algae or seaweed live on the reef. The irukandji jellyfish also lives on the reef.

Environmental Threats of the Great Barrier Reef

Water quality


The coastline of north eastern Australia has no major rivers, (except during tropical flood events caused by tropical cyclones). It also has several major urban centres including Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton and the industrial city of Gladstone.

Cairns and Townsville are the largest of these coastal cities with populations of approximately 150,000 each. Unlike most reef environments worldwide, the Great Barrier Reef is the only one where the water catchment area is home to industrialised urban areas and where extensive areas of coastal lands and rangelands have been used for agricultural and pastoral purposes.

Due to the range of human uses made of the water catchment area adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef some 400 of the 3000 reefs are within a risk zone where water quality has declined owing to sediment and chemical runoff from farming, and to loss of coastal wetlands which are a natural filter. Principal agricultural activity is sugar cane farming in the wet tropics and cattle grazing in the dry tropics regions. Both are considered significant factors affecting water quality.

It is thought that the mechanism behind poor water quality affecting the reefs is due to increased light and oxygen competition from algae, but it has also been suggested that poor water quality encourages the spread of infectious diseases among corals. The long-term monitoring program has found an increase in incidences of coral disease in the period 1999-2002, although they dispute the claim that on the Great Barrier Reef, coral diseases are caused by anthropogenic pollution.

Copper, a common industrial pollutant found in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, has been shown to interfere with the development of coral polyps.

Climate Change

Some people believe that the most significant threat to the status of the Great Barrier Reef and of the planet's other tropical reef ecosystems is climate change - comprising of global warming and the El Niño effect. Many of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef are currently living at the upper edge of their temperature tolerance, as demonstrated in the coral bleaching events of the summers of 1998, 2002 and most recently 2006.

As demonstrated in 1998, 2002 and 2006, corals expel their photosynthesising zooxanthellae and turn colourless, revealing their white calcium carbonate skeletons, under the stress of waters that remain too warm for too long. If the water does not cool within about a month, the coral will die. Australia experienced its warmest year on record in 2005. Abnormally high sea temperatures during the summer of 2005-2006 have caused massive coral bleaching in the Keppel Island group.

Global warming may have triggered the collapse of reef ecosystems throughout the tropics. Increased global temperatures are thought by some to bring more violent tropical storms, but reef systems are naturally resilient and recover from storm battering. While some believe that an upward trend in temperature will cause much more coral bleaching, others suggest that while reefs may die in certain areas, other areas will become habitable for corals, and form coral reefs.

However, the trend towards ocean acidification suggests that as the sea's pH decreases, corals will become less able to secrete calcium carbonate.

Reef scientist Terry Done has predicted a 1 degree rise in global temperature would result in 82 percent of the reef bleached, 2 degrees resulting in 97 percent and 3 degrees resulting in 'total devastation'.

Crown-of-thorns starfish

The crown-of-thorns starfish is a coral reef predator that preys on coral polyps by climbing onto them, extruding the stomach over them, and releasing digestive enzymes to then absorb the liquified tissue. An individual adult of this species can wipe out up to 6 square metres of living reef in a single year.

Although large outbreaks of these starfish are believed to occur in natural cycles, human activity in and around the Great Barrier Reef can worsen the effects. Reduction of water quality associated with agriculture can cause the crown-of-thorns starfish larvae to thrive. Overfishing of its natural predators, such as the Giant Triton, is also considered to contribute to an increase in the number of crown-of-thorns starfish. The CRC Reef Research Centre defines an outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish to be when there are more than 30 adult starfish in an area of one hectare.


The unsustainable overfishing of keystone species, such as the Giant Triton, can cause disruption to food chains vital to life on the reef. Fishing also impacts the reef through increased pollution from boats, by-catch of unwanted species (such as dolphins and turtles) and reef habitat destruction from trawling, anchors and nets. As of the middle of 2004, approximately one-third of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is protected from species removal of any kind, including fishing, without written permission.


Shipping accidents are also a real concern, as several commercial shipping routes pass through the Great Barrier Reef. From 1985-2001, there were 11 collisions and 20 groundings on the inner Great Barrier Reef shipping route. The leading cause of shipping accidents in the Great Barrier Reef is human error.

Although the route through the Great Barrier Reef is not easy, reef pilots consider it safer than outside the reef in the event of mechanical failure, since a ship can sit safely while being repaired. On the outside, wind and swell will push a ship towards the reef and the water is deep right up to the reef so anchoring is impossible. Captain Cook in the Endeavour nearly came to grief that way, being utterly becalmed and pushed towards the reef by the swell. Right up to within 80 metres of the Great Barrier Reef, the water was so deep that no ground (to anchor against) could be felt with 220 metres of line.

Waste and foreign species discharged in ballast water from ships (when purging procedures are not followed) are a biological hazard to the Great Barrier Reef. Tributyltin (TBT) compounds found in some antifouling paint on ship hulls leaches into seawater and is toxic to marine organisms and humans; efforts are underway to restrict its use.


It is suspected that the Great Barrier Reef is the cap to an oil trap. In the 1960s and early 1970s, there was some speculation about drilling for oil and gas there. In 1970, two Royal Commissions were ordered "into exploratory and production drilling for petroleum in the area of the Great Barrier Reef". Oil drilling is not permitted on the Great Barrier Reef, yet oil spills are still considered "one of the biggest threats to the reef", with a total of 282 oil spills between 1987-2002.

Human use of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef has long been known to and utilised by Indigenous Australian people, whose occupation of the continent is thought to extend back 40,000 to 60,000 years or more. For these 70 or so clan groups, the reef is also an important part of their Dreamtime.

The Reef first became known to Europeans when the HM Bark Endeavour, captained by explorer James Cook, ran aground there on June 11, 1770 and sustained considerable damage. It was finally saved after lightening the ship as much as possible and re-floating it during an incoming tide. One of the most famous wrecks was that of the HMS Pandora, which sank on August 29, 1791 killing 35. The Queensland Museum has been leading archaeological digs to the Pandora since 1983.

Management of the Great Barrier Reef

After the Royal Commissions' findings, in 1975, the Government of Australia created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and defined what activities were prohibited on the Great Barrier Reef. The park is managed, in partnership with the Government of Queensland, through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to ensure that it is widely understood and used in a sustainable manner. A combination of zoning, management plans, permits, education and incentives (such as eco-tourism certification) are used in the effort to conserve the Great Barrier Reef.

In July 2004, a new zoning plan was brought into effect for the entire Marine Park, and has been widely acclaimed as a new global benchmark for the conservation of marine ecosystems. While protection across the Marine Park was improved, the highly protected zones increased from 4.5% to over 33.3%. At the time, it was the largest marine protected area in the world, although as of 2006, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument is the largest.

In 2006, a review was undertaken of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. Some recommendations of the review are that there should be no further zoning plan changes until 2013, and that every five years, a peer-reviewed Outlook Report should be published, examining the health of the Great Barrier Reef, the management of the Reef, and environmental pressures.

Great Barrier Reef Tourism

Due to its vast biodiversity, warm clear waters and its accessibility from the floating guest facilities called 'live aboards', the reef is a very popular destination for tourists, especially scuba divers. Many cities along the Queensland coast offer boat trips to the reef on a daily basis. Several continental islands have been turned into resorts.

As the largest commercial activity in the region, it has been estimated in 2003 that tourism in the Great Barrier Reef generates over AU$4 billion annually. (A 2005 estimate puts the figure at AU$5.1 billion.) There are approximately two million visitors to the Great Barrier Reef each year. Although most of these visits are managed in partnership with the marine tourism industry, there are some very popular areas near shore (such as Green Island) that have suffered damage due to overfishing and land based run off.

A variety of boat tours and cruises are offered, from single day trips, to longer voyages. Boat sizes range from dinghies to superyachts. Glass-bottomed boats and underwater observatories are also popular, as are helicopter flights. But by far, the most popular tourist activities on the Great Barrier Reef are snorkelling and diving. Pontoons are often used for snorkelling and diving. When a pontoon is used, the area is often enclosed by nets. The outer part of the Great Barrier Reef is favoured for such activities, due to water quality.

Management of tourism in the Great Barrier Reef is geared towards making tourism ecologically sustainable. A daily fee is levied that goes towards research of the Great Barrier Reef. This fee ends up being 20% of the GBRMPA's income. Plans of management are also in place for the popular tourist destinations of Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands, which comprise 85% of tourism in the region. Policies on cruise ships, bareboat charters, and anchorages limit the traffic on the Great Barrier Reef. The 2003 Pixar film, Finding Nemo, featured the Great Barrier Reef as a setting.

Fishing in the Great Barrier Reef

The fishing industry in the Great Barrier Reef, controlled by the Queensland Government, is worth AU$1 billion annually. It employs approximately 2000 people, and fishing in the Great Barrier Reef is pursued commercially, for recreation, and as a traditional means for feeding one's family. Wonky holes in the reef provide particularly productive fishing areas.