American Oceans

The Great Barrier Reef: Everything You Need To Know

Home to more than 1500 species of fish, over 400 kinds of coral and a whopping 4,000 mollusk variations, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the biggest and most beautiful ecological wonders the world has to offer.

An aerial view of the great barrier reef

Made up of almost 3,000 different reefs and 900 individual islands, it stretches out over 1,400 miles – so wide and vast, you can see it from space. As such, it is considered the world’s largest singular structure composed of living organisms.

Maintained by billions of microscopic organisms, called coral polyps, the reef is home to a plethora of different aquatic life forms.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that in 1981, it was made a World Heritage Site, then named one of the world’s seven natural wonders in 1994 by CNN.

Hundreds of thousands – if not millions! – of people visit the Reef every year to take in its picturesque beauty and bask on some of its stunning golden sands.

Great Barrier Reef

Whether you’d like to SCUBA dive to the bottom or helicopter over the very top there are plenty of different options for seeing all it has to offer.

If you’d rather explore on your own, that’s fine, but there are many different tourist services available, ready and waiting to help you discover everything worth seeing and doing whilst you’re there.

A Few Great Barrier Reef Facts:

  • Size-wise it is bigger than the Great Wall of China,  which makes it the only living thing in the world that can be seen from space
  • It is also the equivalent of at least 70 million football fields in length!
  • Size-wise it is bigger than the Great Wall of China,  which makes it the only living thing in the world that can be seen from space
  • It is also the equivalent of at least 70 million football fields in length!

Where is the Great Barrier Reef?

Helicopter ride over Moore Reef, part of the outer Great Barrier Reef in Australia

In Australia! You can find the Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea, just off the coast of Queensland. It covers a massive 348,000 square kilometers, with a contiguous latitudinal range of 14 degrees, so it’s a pretty big area.

Do Great White Sharks Live in the Great Barrier Reef?

No, not really! Although there are many different species of shark in the Great Barrier Reef, the big bad great white is not one of them for the most part.

In general, you’ll mostly find both white-tipped and black-tipped reef sharks swimming in the Reef, in addition to leopard and grey whalers.

grey tipped reef sharks schooling in the water

However, you might remember back in 2020 when photographer Adrian Bullock caught a four-meter Great White on camera off of Lady Elliot Island by Bundaberg.

This is an incredibly rare glimpse of the species there, so don’t worry too much.

If you’re planning to go snorkeling you’re probably not going to spot anything dangerous anyway; if you are lucky enough to do so, you’ll be incredibly safe and it will probably be the highlight of your dive.

It’s worth noting that the government of Queensland implements a “shark control” problem, which is a kinder way of saying that they actively pursue shark culling.

Blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) swims along the reef edge in the tropical sea

In the period between 1962 and 2018, the program killed over 50,000 sharks,  and it is also responsible for the death of over 84,000 other marine creatures between 1962 and 2015. 

A large proportion of this culling takes place in the Great Barrier Reef, so it’s not surprising that in 2018 Humane Society International submitted a lawsuit to stop the killing of sharks, directly waged against the Queensland government, which is still ongoing.

Can You Swim in the Great Barrier Reef?

Absolutely! All visitors to the Great Barrier Reef are able to swim, dive, sail or snorkel: however you’d like to explore the gorgeous wonder is entirely up to you.

snorkelers exploring the great barrier reef

According to the official GBR website, it is perfectly safe to swim so long as you follow their safety tips.

First of all, it is important to stay between the red and yellow flags should you be swimming at a beach that has lifeguards on hand to help.

These serve as markers so you don’t swim out further than is safe, and ensure you’ll be able to get back to land safely. 

Likewise, if you’re not a particularly strong swimmer and aboard a Day Cruise, be sure to let the staff know in advance so they can offer you a choice of flotation devices, or give you advice on which areas for swimming and snorkeling are closest to the boat.

It is incredibly important to fill out the safety paperwork truthfully: such waivers are legally binding and will enable the instructors to determine whether it is safe for you to dive or not.

Australian person snorkeling scuba diving with life jacket vest and Lycra protection suit at the Great Barrier Reef in the tropical far north of Queensland, Australia

This is not to prevent you from having any fun but rather to make sure that you don’t experience any injuries.

In addition, if there is signage warning against crocodiles or other dangerous creatures in the water,  do not under any circumstances ignore it.

These signs are there for your safety and just because there is nothing visibly dangerous does not mean you aren’t in any jeopardy.

Perhaps the most important part of swimming in the Reef is to be respectful of your surroundings and the beautiful marine life existing within it.

Try to avoid stepping on anything and  be sure to follow all of the rules established by whichever tourist group you are visiting with

How many Animals Live in the Great Barrier Reef?

There are hundreds, if not thousands! From the tiniest bacteria to the most impressive whale it’s not just coral and rainbow-colored fish that inhabit this awe-inspiring and beautiful sightseeing haven. That’s why protecting the Great Barrier Reef is so important.

Aerial view of the great barrier reef

According to its official website, in the Reef you will find the following creatures:

  • More than 1625 species of fish
  • Over 3000 species of molluscs
  • 630 different species of echinoderm  such as sea urchin and starfish
  • 215 species of birds
  • 133 species of sharks and rays
  • 30 species of whales and dolphins 
  • 6 out of 7 of the world’s known species of marine turtles
  • 14 species of sea snake

And many, many more! Some of the most notable species of those at risk of extinction or for which there is concern regarding conservation. Several species of dolphin, whale, sawfish, sea snake, turtle, and dugongs are in danger. 

What Animals are Endangered in a Coral Reef?

That depends on which specific coral reef you’re talking about!

Tropical Fish on Coral Reef

Unfortunately due to a great deal of man-made damage, pollution, overfishing and other ecological issues,  there are several species that are endangered in the Great Barrier Reef at present, as classified by the CITES species classification list.

These include…

Marine turtles: Due to issues like slow reproduction, climate change, nest flooding, egg theft and predators, several of the species of turtles in the Great Barrier Reef are considered vulnerable and require conservation.

This includes the Loggerhead, Hawksbill, Leatherback, Green, Flatback and Olive Ridley. 

Whales: Unfortunately, despite strict rules against whale hunting, the humpback whale is at risk; at its worst the species was down to as few as 500 whales in the wild back in the 1960s, but thanks to huge conservation efforts from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority,  it is becoming a more safe place  for humpbacks too mate and have their babies.

Saltwater Crocodiles: Another creature hunted for meat, eggs and skin, the so-called “salties” are unfortunately down to between 200000 and 300000 specimens globally, which makes them one of the most at-risk animals living in the reef.

Dugongs: As a result of living in the shallow inter-reefal waters, dugongs are incredibly easy prey for Hunters and fishermen who can make a great deal of profit harvesting teeth, meat and oil.

They are also at risk of extinction thanks to pollution, a result of sea dumping in their habitats.

What is the Most Common Coral in the Great Barrier Reef?

When categorizing coral, you can split them into two groups: soft and hard. There are more than 600 species of coral believed to be found in the Marine Park at the Great Barrier Reef, each being distinctive and different to its neighbor.

Staghorn coral

Perhaps most prolific in the Great Barrier Reef is hard coral, with some of its oldest reef formations existing for millions of years.

Of the hard corals the most prevalent found in the GBR are the Staghorn species, distinctive for forming their tough limestone casings which are important for the expansion of the Reef if and offer habitats for many creatures.

What is the Most Dangerous Animal in the Great Barrier Reef?

Depends on who you ask! There are several hundred creatures in the Great Barrier Reef and quite a few of them have the potential to be deadly.

box jelly fish

If you’re heading out on a tour of the Reef it’s likely that the crew on your tour boat will provide you with a great deal of information regarding the potential dangers that await you.

Two of these will probably be the box and Irukandji jellyfish respectively, which both reside quite happily in many parts of the reef.

Their stings are known to be fatal to humans, but your survival rate depends on how healthy you are when stung and how fast emergency services are able to respond.

You may also be made aware of the blue-ringed octopus and cone snails, both of which are adorable but have the potential to pack a nasty punch with venomous stings: do not interact with either of them in any circumstances.

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