Located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most popular diving locations in the world and brings in over $3 billion dollars a year from tourism. The reef is so enormous it can be seen from space and includes over 900 islands and is made up of over 2900 smaller reefs. Created by tiny organisms over a period believed to exceed half a million years, the huge reef is a colorful wonderland that showcases the awe-inspiring beauty of nature in a way few other locations in the world can rival. It is considered one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, and for good reason.
History and Formation
Over 600 thousand years ago, small corals began to grow and die along the sea floor. This process continued, with coral growing on top of the skeletons of its ancestors, until the Earth experienced it’s last glacial maximum about 20,000 years ago. At that point, the planet began to warm and the sea level rose. This allowed the coral to grow faster and more colorfully than ever before. From there, it expanded and traveled on the current to spread exponentially. The living coral is now believed to be between six and eight thousand years old, making it the oldest of the natural wonders of the world.
Marine Life in the Waters of the Reef
The number of individual species that call the reef home is impressive. Whales, dolphins and porpoises of over 30 separate species have been recorded, as well as over 1,500 different species of fish. Other inhabitants include six species of sea turtle, 17 species of sea snake and more than 125 species of shark, skates and stingray have also been cataloged. Additionally, over 5 thousand species of mollusk have been documented, including the giant clam. Seven species of seahorse also populate the waters. Many of the animals found living in the reef have endangered, protected or vulnerable statuses, making studying and preserving their habitat of great importance.
Life Above the Waves
On the islands and in the air in the reef area, saltwater crocodiles, seven species of frog and over 215 species of birds live in one of the most gorgeous natural wonders of the world. Nearly 2,200 different types of plants are found on the islands, which the birds help to spread and propagate.
Environmental Dangers to the Reef
Unfortunately, the delicate ecosystem of the reef is being threatened by both nature and man. Oil spills and other pollution are devastating to the reef, as are environmentally-hazardous fishing methods used by commercial fishers. Farm runoff, which bathes the reef each time Queensland experiences flooding, introduces herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers into the water and kills wildlife. Visitors to the reef also take a toll, leaving behind plastic, cigarette butts, non-native seeds and fungus and even human waste. Shipping accidents, where huge cargo ships run aground or accidentally dump fuel and cargo into the reef, also cause untold damages with each occurrence.
The reef is also endangered by the crown-of-thorns starfish. This species of starfish feasts on coral and can destroy over half of the reef’s living coral in a single breeding season. Over-fishing of the starfish’s natural predators makes the matter even worse. To date, there is no effective way to control the starfish population without putting other wildlife at risk.
The Great Barrier Reef is truly a queen among the 7 natural wonders of the world. Each year over two million people come to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the reef and all of its inhabitants. Scuba diving and snorkeling allow visitors to take in the sea life, while hiking trips and flyovers in planes or helicopters afford views of the islands. In order to keep this gorgeous place available for future generations, all visitors should be careful to leave nothing behind but footprints and take nothing away but pictures and memories.