7 things you didn’t know about the Great Barrier Reef

7 things you didn’t know about the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is one of those places that finds its way on to most travellers bucket list.

I mean why wouldn’t it?

It’s one of the 7 wonders of the world and the largest living thing on Earth. Incidentally, it is also the only living thing that you can see from space.

It was definitely on my bucket list.

So much so that on my East Coast Australia adventure I got to visit several different areas of the reef. On the last and most deliberate exploration of the reef, I took a boat ride from Cairns to snorkel at 3 different reefs.

It was magical.

While some of the coral was not nearly as colourful as I had hoped for the abundance of fish and their vibrancy made up for it. Being able to get so close to both the coral and the fish just by snorkelling was just unreal.

Getting to the reefs, however, had been anything but magical. Unlike the parts of the Great Barrier Reef I had already visited, we had to traverse the open sea to get to these reefs. This meant waves, which also meant nausea. Luckily I wasn’t sick but I sure did come close, and I don’t count myself as being susceptible to motion sickness. The ginger biscuits I brought with me sure did help though.

Once at the reef though all feelings of nausea melted away and were replaced by waves of awe.

While you probably know it mostly because of the whole coral bleaching and dying thing, due to a number of factors including climate change, there are probably a few other things that you didn’t know.

Here are a few fun facts to impress your friends and family (or random strangers) about the Great Barrier Reef.

1. It is Huge

The Great Barrier Reef covers 2300 Km and can be seen from space.

Not only is it bigger than the Great Wall of China but it is bigger than the UK, Holland and Switzerland combined!

The reef itself has an inshore average of 35 metres while the outer reefs can extend as far down as 200 metres!

Great Barrier Reef
Even from the boat this particular reef system looked huge!

While this makes it a perfect place for diving enthusiasts, if you cannot dive not to worry as you can see plenty of the reef from just snorkelling.

2. It’s not just 1 reef system

While it’s called the Great Barrier Reef, it is, in fact, a collection of reef systems.

There are actually over 3000 individual reef systems that make up the Great Barrier reef. These are spread out over 2300 Km from the Torres Strait in the north down to Lady Elliot Island.

3. It’s not just underwater

Sprinkled throughout the Great Barrier Reef are 900, beautiful tropical Islands. Plus many more stunning beaches. These Islands are all as much a part of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem as the coral itself.

Islands include those such as Lady Elliot Island, Fitzroy Island, Magnetic Island, Lady Musgrave Island and Hamilton Island. Not forgetting Whitehaven beach!

Great Barrier reef, the Whitsundays
Sunset in the Whitsunday Islands
You can read more about my adventures on a few of these islands here;

Magnetic Island: the Ultimate Backpackers Guide

The Whitsundays: here's why you shouldn't do a day trip

4. It’s got an abundance of aquatic life

As anyone that has ever watched a documentary about coral reefs (or just watched Finding Nemo for that matter) will know, Coral reefs and Aquatic life kind of go hand in hand.

In fact not only is it where you can go searching for Nemo and Dory – and if you say you don’t then you’re lying and we can’t be friends anymore – but there’s a whole heap of other cool marine creatures for you to check out.

Get your teeth stuck into these stats;

There are

  • Over 1500 different species of fish
  • Approximately 10% of the world’s total fish species can be found on the Great Barrier Reef
  • 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises have been recorded there
  • There are 6 species of sea turtles known to call the Great Barrier Reef home
  • 215 species of birds either visit the reef to feed or nest on one of the 900 islands.
  • 17 species of sea snakes live on the Great Barrier Reef – because you don’t already need to worry enough about snakes on land in Australia!
Great barrier reef coral snorkel
Even just by snorkelling, you can get up close to the coral

Obviously different areas of the Great Barrier Reef will play host to different species. I have had the opportunity to snorkel at several different spots along the reef and at each one the abundance of life was breathtaking. Not to mention the variety of colours, shapes and sizes on show!

5. It is Old

The Great Barrier Reef is estimated to be about 500,000 years old. So pretty old. However, it hasn’t always looked like it does today. Due to movement of the Earth’s crust, Volcanic activity and changing sea levels, it has had to change and adapt over the years.

According to the Australian Institute of Marine Science and other scientific research, the current reef began to form during the Last Glacial Maximum about 25,000 years ago. At this point, there were significant environmental changes which ultimately led to a dramatic drop in sea levels.

The land that currently forms the base of the Great Barrier Reef are the remains of the sediments of the foothills of the Great Dividing Range.

Approximately 13,000 years ago the sea level was 61 metres lower than it is currently. Corals began to grow around the coastal plains. Then, as the Earth entered a period of warming, sea levels began to rise. Most of the continental islands became submerged but the corals remained forming the reefs and low-level, sandy islands that we see today.

It is estimated that the reef in its current form is approximately 8000 years old.

6. Coral Breeding is Synchronised

Ok, so you know how if a bunch of women live with each other long enough their menstrual cycles sync up? Well coral does something similar, only its a little rarer and like all mystical things involves the phases of the moon.

For just a short time in late October/early November, the Great Barrier reef is home to the largest breeding event in the world!

On a rare, low current night, the entire Great Barrier Reef becomes alive with millions of coral eggs and sperm are simultaneously released in a flurry of red, white and pink.

Each fertilised egg has the ability to start its very own new colony. They join the thousands of other tiny fish and plankton as they mature, float along the tide and finally settle in their own new home on the reef.

7. Coral have predators too.

The nemesis of all coral is the very biblically named crown-of-thorns starfish. It’s top surface covered in thorn-like spikes it is the largest starfish in the world. Unluckily, its favourite snack is coral.

It crawls its way on top of the coral, even the really branchy ones. Here it loosely attaches to the coral and extrudes is stomach through its mouth and over the surface of the coral to virtually its own diameter.

The stomach then secretes its digestive juices liquifying the coral. The starfish can then absorb nutrients from the liquefied coral tissue.

An individual starfish can eat up to 6 square metres of living coral reef per year. While Coral can often recover from an attack and the crown-of-thorns starfish is a part of the ecosystem that naturally helps keep the Great Barrier Reef alive, an outbreak can be devastating.

However, you choose to experience the Great Barrier Reef it is always important to respect nature and to not touch the coral or any of the marine life. You may cause damage to it or yourself. The reef is spectacular and a sight that cannot truly be understood until you see and feel it for yourself.

So please help preserve it so that those who come after you have the chance to revel in its grandeur as much as you have.

Until next time

Keep Adventuring

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