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Articles Blog

The Great Barrier Reef

Karyn Planett

It’s Alive ! It’s Alive !

But, you knew that. The Great Barrier Reef is, indeed, alive … alive with a rainbow of colors you’ve never dreamt of and with fish as strange as aquatic Avatars. It has definitely earned its well-deserved bullet on Mother Nature’s Greatest Hits chart, as well as its place in the WOW Hall of Fame.

That said, what do we really know about this undersea marvel? Well, the facts and stats are staggering. For the record, though, note that experts don’t always agree (there’s a surprise!) and what follows is our best representation of the materials we’ve reviewed on your behalf.

*             The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world.

*            Hence, it is the largest living thing on earth and can be seen from outer space and astronauts zipping by.

*            It measures 1,300 miles long, from Queensland’s Lady Elliot Island to New Guinea’s Gulf of Papua.

*            The reef covers 80,000 square miles, an area slightly smaller than Kansas.

*            Scientists believe the reef’s current structure is approximately 8,000 years old. Some experts think its original reef is 500,000 years old while others peg the age closer to 18 million years old. It’s like trying to guess a beautiful woman’s age. Anyway, either way it’s rather young as those in tiny little modern corals of southern Europe are said to be 230 millions years old.

*            The many islands of the Great Barrier Reef, 900 give or take, are either coral in nature or were formed when they were separated from the mainland some 10 to 125 miles away.

*            Tides and waves alter the reef daily. Dugongs, related to elephants and manatees and weighing up to 400 kilograms, visit the reefs a little less frequently.

*            The Great Barrier Reef Lagoon, wedged between the coast and the reef, is approximately 325 feet deep.

*            In some places, the reef measures 400 to 500 feet thick.

*            It was formed from a collection of 2,500 smaller reefs, which are intertwined.

*            300 – 400 species of hard coral are found here.

*            1,500 species of fish live in and around the reef.

*            2,000 - 4,000 species of shellfish also call the reef “home.”

*            Some of the world’s biggest black marlin swim nearby.

*            Humpback whales are also common in this area, especially             in early September. A total of 30 whale species swim by.

*            In 1970, the government established the Great Barrier Reef             Marine Park to prevent oil companies from drilling on the reef.

*            In 1981, the reef was chosen as a World Heritage Site.

*            In 1985, the government declared the entire reef (except for 2%) a national park.

*            Evil poachers, nonetheless, raid the reef for shells and certain             sea creatures.

So How Did It All Begin?

One little hard coral polyp at a time. Individual polyps as small as 3 millimeters each cluster into colonies that can measure 1.5 meters in length, width, or height. Technically, they’re invertebrates, without a backbone. With the death of hard coral, a minuscule limestone structure is formed when its skeleton collects nearby debris or tiny bits of sand. With this process repeating over and over, millions of times, the reef grows and grows.

All the while, soft coral is floating about on the periphery of the growing reef waiting for plankton to drift by and serve as its nourishment. Together, they form the reef’s two main groups of corals. Within these coral groups are thousands of varieties living on the reef with such exotic names as “brain”, “organ pipe”, “fan”, and “staghorn”.

Remember, corals need a dose of bright sunlight for their survival and Australia supplies plenty of that. That’s why they’re usually found in the more shallow parts of the sea.

Now the Sexy Bit

This is where it gets interesting, especially if you’re either a scientist or a coral. They, the corals not the scientists, reproduce sexually as well as asexually. The former when male and female coral polyps cast forth millions of sperms and eggs. Once released, the goods float merrily along the water’s surface to meet up like teenagers at a prom. They fertilize and the fertilized eggs then dodge predators eventually hatching into adorable little larvae that drift aimlessly about with plankton in the ebb and flow. Should all go well, and in all reality it doesn’t for most of the larvae, they begin the next phase of their life attached to a reef to produce a brand new coral colony. In contrast, asexual reproduction happens when polyps or colonies become separated from the parent colony. It’s boring. But this isn’t -- some polyps are both male and female.

Words to the Wise

Divers and visitors exploring the reef must do so without disturbing it. The local authorities are passionate about protecting its fragile surface from boat anchors, fishing nets, souvenir hunters and the like. And, as is always the case where delicate ecosystems are concerned, a good visitor takes only pictures and leaves behind only a very few footprints. Unfortunately, the Crown-of-Thorns Seastar didn’t get the message and has been chomping away on the coral, taking as much as one square yard of coral each day. Little do they know we view the Great Barrier Reef equally eco-y as the endangered rainforest. Having said that, some view them as evil habitat destroyers while others celebrate this type of population control that frees up space for newer reefs. The debate rages on.