A well-known icon of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is on many a traveller’s bucket list, so a visit to this natural phenomenon would enrich any Australia vacation. Situated off the coast of Queensland, it is the largest coral reef system in the world, and offers water enthusiasts an array of activities, as well as all vacationers the enjoyment of sun and relaxation. Here are some interesting facts to help you get to know Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
How Big is the Great Barrier Reef?
The Great Barrier Reef measures 2300 kilometres/1400 miles long and from 60 kilometres/37 miles to 250 kilometres/145 miles wide. It is roughly as big in area as Italy, Japan, or Germany, and half as big as Texas. Not only is it big, it’s also the only living thing on Earth visible from outer space.
What Exactly is the Great Barrier Reef?
The Great Barrier Reef is actually made of billions of tiny living organisms, which make it the largest living organism in the world, with over 3000 coral reefs and 880 islands – of which 27 islands are inhabited. There are 600 types of hard and soft coral. An interesting fact is that coral is actually carnivorous. At night, polyps open up and grab tiny shrimp and other living things floating in the current. They have jellyfish-like tentacles and suck in their prey.
There are huge tropical rain forests on some islands that get some of the most rainfall in the world. The forests are vital to the reef because they filter the sediments that come through the rivers which kill marine life.
What Natural Life Does One Find On and Around the Great Barrier Reef?
Let’s get statistical for a moment. There are 3500 different species of fish, 5000 species of mollusks, 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, 6 species of sea turtles, 20 types of reptiles, and over 200 species of birds that visit or nest here. It is a fact that 10% of the world’s total fish species can be found just within the Reef.
The greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef is actually climate change, which affects both coral and marine life. Other dangers are pollution and over-fishing – both of which reduce the food chain.
Grugeon’s Good Beer Company in Australia donates at least half of its profits to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, an organization that has spent half a century campaigning to protect the Reef. It’s something beer lovers can be proud of. However, it’s still wise to drink beer in moderation regardless!
How Do You Get to See the Great Barrier Reef?
One of Australia’s most remarkable natural gifts, the Great Barrier Reef is blessed with breathtaking beauty. This is one major reason why around 2 million people visit it annually. There are literally hundreds of picturesque tropical islands with some of the world’s most beautiful sun-soaked, golden beaches. You can enjoy a day trip from Cairns or Port Douglas on a catamaran cruise. You can indulge in any of the 2- to 7-day passenger cruises available. The Coral Princess is one, which sails from Cairns and Townsville. You can take a scenic flight from both Cairns and Port Douglas, or, you can stay at one of the resorts on a number of islands. Some of the better known are the Whitsundays group of islands, Hamilton Island, Heron Island, Lizard Island, Green Island, and Hayman Island.
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling, Anyone?
If you are a certified Scuba diver or a snorkeler, the Great Barrier Reef has some of the best ocean life anywhere. Even if you have never Scuba dived before, the Great Barrier Reef offers some great places to learn. There are a wide range of dive sites along the Great Barrier Reef including calm, protected, shallow spots around the islands, perfect for first-timers. There are also reef sites, rich in fish life and corals, and the deeper sites on the outer reefs for those with some experience. No matter where you stay on the reef, you are always within a 20 to 60 minute boat ride of an excellent diving spot. The late Jacques Cousteau named Heron Island as one of his top ten favourite diving sites in the world.
One interesting site is where the SS Yongala, a 100 metre long passenger ship, sank in 1911. It is now a huge fish sanctuary as well as a tourist attraction for divers not far from Townsville, and is regarded as the greatest wildlife wreck on earth. The hulls of the wreck are completely covered in soft corals, attracting and sheltering millions of fish. The current brings in so much food that fish stay here their whole lives!
Where to Stay on the Reef
Certainly consider staying on the mainland with easy access to the Great Barrier Reef, such as Cairns, Townsville, and Port Douglas. However, there are other options:
Whitsunday Islands: The 74 Islands of the Whitsundays are situated between Townsville and Mackay. Most of the islands have “National Park” status and have extensive walking tracks offering amazing views over the surrounding islands and the distant mainland. They are all about relaxing. You can enjoy everything from diving to sailing, glass-bottom boat viewing, whale watching, and swimming with dolphins. Whitehaven Beach is a stretch of pure white beach which extends for over 9 kilometres/6 miles, and is fringed by crystal clear water and lush tropical rainforests. It has been called one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Hayman Island is the most northerly of the Whitsundays and is a fairly mountainous island with particularly beautiful views to the south. On a sunny day, the colour of the water of Hayman’s lagoon and Whitsunday Passage are simply stunning. You can simply spend your days here relaxing under a palm tree, swimming in the spacious pools, or exploring the bush land around the island.
Lizard Island: Lizard Island is a protected national park with just one exclusive resort and 24 pristine sandy beaches. It is the most northern resort in tropical Queensland, located directly on the Great Barrier Reef, and only accessible by private charter flight from Cairns. Yes, there are lizards which you can’t miss seeing. They meander around the island looking for food, and in the evening, retire to their hidden burrows.
Fitzroy Island: Fitzroy Island is one of the most unspoilt islands. It is a mountainous rainforest oasis surrounded by fringe reef formations within sight of the mainland.
Heron Island: Heron Island is named after the herons which are part of the rich bird life that inhabits the island. Here, all flora and fauna are protected so the island is a nature lover’s paradise, with the emphasis being on enjoying the natural beauty. It is also famous for its excellent scuba diving and snorkeling.
Green Island: Green Island, a coral cay which can be easily walked around in 20 minutes, is a popular destination from Cairns. The interior is predominantly rainforest. It is home to over 100 native plant species, an abundance of bird life, and is surrounded by magnificent coral gardens.