Set off the northeast coast of Australia, an interconnecting series of some 3,000 coral reefs covers an area of about 350,000 square kilometres, making it larger than the whole Italy. The Great Barrier Reef is one of our planet`s natural wonders and the world`s most extensive coral reef system. It is not only the world`s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only living structure on earth to be seen from outer space but also the most spectacular marine wilderness on the globe.
THE WOLRD`S LARGEST CORAL ECO-SYSTEM
This exceptional natural beauty is stretching for 2,300 km of Queensland`s coast and it runs through a number of different climates: from the Tropic of Capricorn to the southern coast of Papua New Guinea. It is made up of 3,400 individual reefs, including nearly 800 fringing reefs, coral islands, forested continental islands, coral cays, sandbars and mangrove systems linked by large lagoons.
The sea in tropical waters is commonly fairly clear because it has little in the way of nutrients. The coral reef, with their algae`s ability to convert sunlight into energy, is at the bottom of the food chain and supports one of the world`s most diverse eco-systems. More than 400 varieties of corals build different structures that act as anchors, protection and food for hundreds of marine species.
The Great Barrier Reef is of vital importance to the world`s eco-systems, containing a third of the planet`s soft coral species and mammals like humpback whales, dolphins and dugongs. Also, sponges, molluscs, thousands of types of tropical reef fish and hundreds of species of birds thrive on its abundance.
Scuba divers are lucky enough to enjoy this submersed wonderland; dazzling coral gardens of both soft and hard corals, limestone fortresses, countless shipwrecks, underwater canyons, anemones and giant mantas, seahorse and sharks, sea turtles, dolphins and whales.
DID YOU KNOW?
Coral Cays are low islands formed by the build-up of reef sediments. As the reef grows, hardy plants start to flourish in the sand, birds begin to settle down and the vegetated coral is then established and becomes a mini-ecosystem. Fully encircled by a coral reef and shallow waters, these little isles make perfect snorkelling spots.
1.THE SOUTHERN REEF ISLANDS
The southernmost end of the Great Barrier Reef is a humble fellow. It starts with small islands and tiny islets scattered in the waters of the Pacific, right between the Fraser Island and Rockhampton.
The reef becomes more obvious offshore from Gladstone – home to the Capricornia Cays National Park. The marine reserve comprises 241 coral cays that are encircled by mere reefs and coral gardens. The national park features endangered birdlife, diverse marine eco-system and only some of the cays are open to tourism.
Snorkelling, scuba diving, whale watching, sea turtle hatching and relaxing in the coral lagoons and their powdery-white sands are things to do, especially on the Lady Elliot, Lady Musgrave and Heron Islands.
TO GET THERE: Fly to Rockhampton. The islands can be visited by booking a ‘charter’ or a cruise or via a ferry from Rockhampton or Yeppoon.
BEST DIVING & SNORKELLING SITES
2.THE CENTRAL REEF ISLANDS
The 74 Whitsunday Islands lie just off the Queensland`s coast and are perfectly situated for exploring the Great Barrier Reef. The Whitsunday Island itself, the largest in the group, is a national park, as are many of the other islands either in whole or part. Here all you find are fabulous white sandy beaches, secluded bays, radiant marine life in the shallow tropical waters, dense green pine forests and heavenly peace, of course.
The highlights and the major attractions are the almost legendary Hill Inlet and the Whitehaven Beach – rated as the world`s best beach. The virgin 7 km long stretch consists of 98% pure white silica brought to the beach via prevailing sea currents over millions of years.
Many of the islands are privately owned or uninhabited, and due to the sailing and yachting popularity in the area, the whole surroundings often gives an impression that there are more people about at the sea than there are on land. Here, however, one will often need to exceed their budget.
THE WHITSUNDAY ISLAND RESORTS
The most visited islands in the marine park are Hamilton Island, Daydream Island, Long Island and Hayman Island – luxurious and expensive retreats with 5-star service. The islands are popular with honeymooners, wealthy holidaymakers, sailors, yachter and scuba divers.
Recently, the Molle Islands have opened up to the independent travellers who can appreciate their splendour at ‘reasonable’ price and stay at one of the islands` campgrounds.
TO GET THERE: Fly to Proserpine/Whitsunday Coast Airport (Australian mainland) and take a ferry from Airlie Beach to Hamilton Island, Daydream Island or the Molle Islands. Otherwise, fly directly to the Hamilton Island (Great Barrier Reef Airport). NOTE Most of the islands can be visited by booking a ‘bareboat charter’ or a cruise from any resort or a ferry from the mainland at the Airlie Beach/Shute Harbour or Mackay.
WHAT TO DO IN THE WHITSUNDAYS
TOWNSVILLE & MAGNETIC ISLAND
The Great Barrier Reef is very much part of the local psyche in Townsville; the Marine Park Authority and James Cook University continually research and monitor the aspects of the reefs.
The famous Magnetic Island, known as the ‘Maggie’, is a haven for wildlife and marine life, and a paradise for tourists. With secluded beaches, lush national parks and a heritage-listed marine reserve, the island offers plenty of activities, ranging from trekking, diving and snorkelling to relaxing at the hotel pool. Angling and boating are particularly popular with the locals, whereas the huge native colony of koalas is every tourist`s highlight.
TO GET THERE: Fly to Townsville (all islands can be reached via ferry, organized boat tour, cruise or charter boat)
BEST DIVING & SNORKELLING SITES AROUND TOWNSVILLE
3.THE FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND ISLANDS (NORTH OF CAIRNS)
For lazy days yet busy nightlife, Great Barrier Reef just a stone`s throw away, the nearby posh resort town of Port Douglas and Daintree National Park, Cairns is the premier tropical destination in Queensland, ideal for both demanding tourist and independent travellers.
Here ocean means everything – it is the source of food and income. The local fishermen, tourists and sea creatures – they all enjoy the allure of the reef.
Cape York is the northernmost region of Australia, separated from Papua New Guinea by the narrow Torres Strait. The sparsely populated and untouched wilderness area is defined by rugged coastline fringed by the coral gardens of the Great Barrier Reef. Here you can find the least touched portion of the reef.
TO GET THERE: Fly to Cairns. Most of the islands can be visited by booking a ‘bareboat charter’ or a cruise from any resort or a ferry from the mainland at Cairns or Port Douglas.
BEST DIVING & SNORKELLING SITES NORTH OF CAIRNS
The Great Barrier Reef makes the richest marine habitat on our planet and it is going to take vigilance and effort to ensure its future. Therefore, if visiting this magnificent natural wonder please leave it the way you saw it, so our future generations will also share the allure and mysteries submerged in the waters of the reef.
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