The Great Barrier Reef is located off of the north-eastern face of Australia off of the coast of the state of Queensland in the Coral Sea. While the name implies a single reef, it is actually a reef system. In fact, it is the largest reef system in the world, stretching over 2,300 km (1,600 miles) with 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands. The reef system extends from Bundaberg in the south to the tip of Cape York Peninsula in the north. It is visible from outer space and is the world’s largest structure on Earth made by living organisms. The vast number of reef systems contain a unique range of ecological communities, habitats, and species which make the Great Barrier Reef an ideal place for diving or snorkeling.
The Great Barrier Reef sits in what is known as the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The Great Barrier Reef Heritage Area encompasses an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometers (133,000 sq mi.) and extends into the low water mark of the mainland of Australia. This is a protected area and in addition the the reef, this area also includes mangroves and the sandy beaches of the islands and cays which are important for breeding colonies of seabirds and marine turtles in addition to the life underneath the water.
There are thousands of species of brilliantly colored reef fish and different kinds of soft and hard coral that provide a diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors not found anywhere else in the world. It is also home to many natural phenomena throughout the year including nesting turtles, migrating whales, the spawning of the various fish species, and the annual coral spawning.
Six of the seven species of sea turtles live on the Great Barrier Reef and at least 242 species of birds have been recorded there as well. There are also 30 species of whales and dolphins that occur there. With so many species it is no wonder that it is the globally important breeding ground for so many different species including the Green Sea Turtle and 22 species of birds.
The Great Barrier Reef Heritage area is maintained by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. It is an independent Australian Government agency and protects and manages the Great Barrier Reef with conservation being their primary aim.
Throughout the Great Barrier Reef there is special zoning for various uses to help protect it. If you are thinking of seeing the Great Barrier Reef without a tour guide, check with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority before planning your trip.
The most popular location to see the Great Barrier Reef is from Cairns, as it has an international airport terminal and has more tours to see the Great Barrier Reef than any other location. It is not the only place to see the Great Barrier Reef though and other options include the Whitsundays, Cape Tribulation, or Port Douglas which is an hours drive from Cairns.
While it is an amazing spot to go scuba diving, many people prefer to just snorkel the Great Barrier Reef as well since the majority of the life on the Reef is in less than 10 meters of water.