Just off the coast of Australia sits one of the most diverse, wondrous, and extremely important habitats on Planet Earth: the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately, according to recent news, the Great Barrier Reef is in real danger. Thanks to the one-two punch of abnormally warm waters and climate change, as much as 93 percent of the Reef is bleached. “When bleaching is this severe it affects almost all coral species, including old, slow-growing corals that once lost will take decades or longer to return,” says Andrew Baird of Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. What’s more, leading scientists say this kind of bleaching is 175 times likelier to occur due to human-caused climate change than any natural occurrence. The loss of so much of the Great Barrier Reef could be catastrophic the world over. This is not simply because of the damage it might do from an ecological standpoint, but because the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most fascinating pockets of life on Earth. Check out these facts (especially #16) to see what we mean.
1. It’s the Biggest Reef in the World
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system. Stretching across an area of more than 133,000 square miles, the Great Barrier Reef encompasses more than 900 islands and 2,900 individual reefs. The reef is actually so large it can be seen from space. It is, without rival, the world’s largest structure made of living organisms.
2. There Are More Than 600 Types of Coral
Coral is actually the exoskeleton for a creature called a coelentera that feeds on the creatures floating through the marine water. The sheer diversity of coral present in the Great Barrier Reef is staggering; there are more than 600 types of coral — both hard and soft — present in the 1,400 mile length of the reef.
3. This Guy Lives There
This is a dugong, a relative of the manatee. The dugong is the last remaining member of its family, and it’s also the world’s only strictly marine herbivorous mammal. Unfortunately, this cute vegetarian fella is also highly endangered. The Great Barrier Reef is home to about 10,000 dugongs, as it is a vital feeding region for the species.
4. More Than 1,500 Species of Fish Call It Home
The reef is home to a stunning amount of wildlife, including more than 1,500 species of fish, from the beautiful clown fish to several endangered species of snapper and coral trout. Wrasse, triggerfish, surgeonfish, damselfish and sharks are just some of the other species to spot there. Several of these species even rely on the reef as their spawning grounds, using the colorful coral as a home.
5. Pollution is a Big Problem
Beyond climate change, pollution of the Indian Ocean is one of the biggest threats facing the sensitive reef. Rivers running out of northeastern Australia carry farm run-off — which accounts for 90% of the pollution — into the main body of water, which, in turn, poisons the algae that feed the reef.
6. Half the Reef Has Disappeared Since the ’80s
It’s alarming but true. In just 30 years, the reef has deteriorated significantly. A 2012 study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that half of the reef system had degraded since 1985 due to coral bleaching, storm damage and predatory crown-of-thorns starfish (see #14). It’s too valuable a natural resource to lose.
7. Saltwater Crocodiles Live By the Reef
The saltwater crocodile makes it’s home on the shores near the Great Barrier Reef. The saltwater croc is the world’s largest living reptile and the world’s largest land-based predator. These beautiful monsters can get up to 17 feet long and possess the strongest bite of any animal living today. Don’t worry, salty sightings on the reef itself are few and far between (they mostly stick to the brackish rivers, estuaries and billabongs on the mainland), so enjoy your reef snorkel or dive without much worry – but best to be aware of their potential lurking presence nonetheless.
8. Not All the Life is Below the Waves
In addition to the vibrant scene under the waters, the islands of the Great Barrier Reef are home to more than 200 species of birds. The scattered islands of the reef are great for bird sex, apparently, as the area can play host to as much as 1.7 million birds — including this majestic fellow, the white-bellied sea eagle — flock to the region get their mate on.
9. More Ways People Are Killing the Reef
Now we come to overfishing, which can be a real problem. Everything from seafood meat (which is, admittedly, scrumptious) to the shells in which they live drive a billion dollar industry every year that can disrupt food chains in the reef. That’s not even addressing the habitat destruction caused by fishing boats, nets, oil spills, etc.
10. More Fun Fish Facts
The number of fish living in the Great Barrier Reef are so numerous that ten percent of world’s total fish species can be found within the confines of it. When you’re working with an area that’s nearly half the size of Texas (or 70 million football fields), you’re going to encounter a lot of fish, but the fact that so many are concentrated in a comparably small area of the world speaks to the reef’s importance to our global ecosystem.
11. Tourism Is a Big Deal
With any natural wonder, you’re going to get some curiosity, but the Great Barrier Reef is second to none. It manages to attract people from all walks of life, drawing in more than two million visitors every single year. Australia relies on that, too, as tourism to the reef accounts for upwards of six billion dollars each year.
12. Say Hello to the Humpback Dolphin
More than thirty species of whale, dolphin, and porpoise call the Great Barrier Reef home, including the humpback whale and the endangered Humpback Dolphin. The Humpback Dolphin is found along the coasts of very few places in the world.
13. It’s Mad Old
Some scientists theorize that the Great Barrier Reef is as old as twenty million years, one of the largest hosts of living things since the beginning of time. Generation after generation of coral have called it home, adding layer after layer to the colossal structure.
14. The Crown of Thorns
The crown-of-thorns is a type of starfish that preys on coral polyps, also known as the things that keep the Great Barrier Reef alive. Named for those sinister looking spines on their outside, they recur periodically and have the potential to put a real hurt on coral reefs. These recursions are more dangerous of late, however, thanks to the warmer waters caused by pollution, overfishing and climate change.
15. The Reef is Migrating South
In search of cooler waters, slowly but surely there’s a southerly migration of the reef going on. As Oceanic water temperatures rise, reef creatures are moving down towards the New South Wales coast.
16. You Can Check Out the Reef on Google Street View
If you feel like exploring the Great Barrier Reef without getting on a boat or plane, or getting wet for that matter, head on over to Google Street View for their underwater footage of the world’s biggest reef. These vibrant panoramic images are amazing. It’s the next best thing to diving there.