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
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 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 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
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
from July to September, when sailfish also seem to peak. Giant black
marlin (1,000 to 2,000 lbs.) begin to appear at
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
After a checkout of your sailing expertise and experience you can
self-skipper a boat with a "bareboat" charter or participate in a
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
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
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
A deeper look into the Great
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Rockhampton and the
industrial city of Gladstone.
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
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
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.
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
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'.
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
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
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
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.