Here are some bewildering facts about the reef and its inhabitants with which you can stun (or is that bore to death?) members of the opposite sex in bars…

Reef Facts

  • The Great Barrier Reef is the only living thing on earth that can be seen from the moon.
  • It is protected by World Heritage status, meeting all four WH natural-importance criteria. Namely: it’s a living record of earth’s evolution; has ongoing biological processes; natural phenomena and beauty; and is home to threatened species.
  • It is greater in area than the entire UK.
  • At its widest, the reef is 80km wide; at its furthest out it is 300km from the mainland coast, and at its tallest it’s more than 500m thick. Its oldest parts have been growing for 18 million years.
  • Although the Great Barrier Reef is counted as one reef, it is actually composed of nearly 3,000 separate reefs, clumped close together.
  • Scientists believe coral may hold the cure for AIDS and cancer.
  • Big sharks are extremely rare on the Great Barrier Reef – they prefer deeper waters.
  • Coral reefs cover less than one per cent of the planet’s surface but support more than 25 per cent of all marine life. The Great Barrier Reef alone is home to 1500 species of fish, 400 species of coral, 4,000 species of molluscs, 500 species of seaweed, 215 species of birds, 16 species of sea snakes (eek!), six species of sea turtles, plus several migrating whales.

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  • Coral is formed by primitive species of polyp; small, lentil-sized, tube-like animals vaguely related to jellyfish and sea anenomes. They suck onto a hard surface and wave their tiny ring of stinging tentacles in the water. These capture their prey – plankton – and pull it down into their stomach.
  • The nutrients it digests pass along to the whole colony. A colony, or lump of coral, can house tens of thousands of individuals.
  • The best time to see coral is at night, because this is when they reach out from their skeletons to feed.
  • Hard corals excrete lime to form a protective surface around their body. When they die, this white skeleton remains and new generations of polyp build upon it, forming reefs.
  • The colour from coral actually comes from tiny algae that co-habits with the polyps in the colony. Different-coloured algae work with different coral species, so corals appear in different colours.
  • The relationship between the polyps and the algae is delicately balanced and mutually essential. The polyps offer protection and carbon dioxide to the algae. The algae makes oxygen for the coral to breathe and carbohydrates to supplement its plankton diet.
  • Some coral stings can be felt by human skin, so it’s best not to touch coral. This suits the coral too, as it is very delicate and can be crushed and killed by clumsy limbs.
  • Apart from close encounters with divers and snorkellers, the Great Barrier Reef faces other threats, despite its World Heritage protection.
  • Global warming is perhaps the biggest threat to the world’s reefs. As the water temperature rises, corals self-destruct. Some scientists predict that most of the world’s coral will be dead in 40 years.
  • You can help to try and save the Great Barrier Reef.

It’s more than 2000km long, so there are plenty of places to see the Great Barrier Reef. Get snorkelled up at any of these destinations for the dive of your life.

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The GBR officially begins at Bundaberg in the south, and the area offers some great dive deals, without the crowds of some of the more popular venues. The Capricorn and Bunker Group dive sites include Lady Elliot Island and Lady Musgrave Island, both with gorgeous reef and stunning sealife. This area is famous for spotting manta rays, Maori wrasse, wobbegong sharks and turtles – it’s the largest turtle hatchery in the southern hemisphere, fact fans.

Airlie Beach & the Whitsundays

Airlie Beach & The Whitsundays offer everything that scuba divers want to see, as well as being home to the beautiful Whitsunday Islands. Bait Reef has a world-class diving area called The Stepping Stones, a series of 17 flat-topped bommies which are exposed at low tide, while seven more are submerged. This area has a number of dive sites and you can dive here every day for a week and still not see it all.

Another beautiful reef is Little Black Reef, where you can see manta rays and prolific amounts of fish, including parrot fish and stingrays. The north end of Hook Island and Blue Pearl Bay, off Hayman Island, also boast an array of marine critters. The special thing about the reef around the Whitsundays is that there is something new and beautiful to see with every changing season. Depending on the time of year, you could find yourself face-to-face with anything from a humpback whale to a turtle.

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Townsville and Magnetic Island

The Yongala Wreck is renowned as one of the best dive sites in the world. Yongala, a 3664-tonne passenger/cargo steamer, was lost in a cyclone in 1911. All 121 crew and passengers died. Toilet bowls, dinner plates, bed frames and human bones are still scattered in and around the wreck and the coral build-up on the boat and fish life are incredible. Huge schools of kingfish, trevally, turrum, barracudas and enormous gropers are seen regularly. Nearby Magnetic Island also has some brilliant diving.


The GBR is closer to the coast here than it is further south, making Cairns the unofficial scuba capital of Oz. The reefs just offshore are excellent, with Green and Fitzroy Islands having excellent fringing reefs. There are lots of species of wildlife to see on this part of the coast and here are just a few examples of the weirdly-named marine life and coral you can expect to see off the Cairns coast: brain coral, gorgonian fans, nudibranch, blue spotted lagoon rays, winkle suckers and parrot fish (we made one of those up). In the winter months, you can see migrating humpback, pilot and minke whales.


Photos: Tourism Australia, Thinkstock