The Great Barrier Reef is a site of remarkable variety and beauty on the north-east coast of Australia. It is the world's most extensive stretch of coral reef and in terms of faunal diversity, probably the richest area in the world. This great diversity reflects the maturity of an ecosystem which has evolved over millions of years, on the continental shelf of Australia. The site contains a huge number of species, including over 1,500 types of fish, about 360 species of hard coral, 5,000 species of mollusc, and more than 175 bird species, plus a great diversity of sponges, anemones, marine worms and crustaceans.
The reef system, extending to Papua New Guinea, comprises some 2,900 individual reefs of all shapes and sizes, covering more than 20,000 km2, including 760 fringing reefs which range in size from under a hectare to over 10,000 hectares, with a variety of shapes providing the most spectacular marine scenery on earth. There are approximately 600 continental islands including many with towering forests and freshwater streams, and some 300 coral cays and unvegetated sand cays. A rich variety of landscape and seascape, which includes rugged, densely vegetated mountains with adjacent fringing reefs, provide spectacular scenery.
The form and structure of the individual reefs show great variety. Two main classes may be defined: platform or patch reefs, resulting from radial growth; and wall reefs, resulting from elongated growth, often in areas of strong water currents. There are also many fringing reefs where the reef growth is established on the subtidal rock of the mainland coast or continental islands.
The site includes major feeding grounds for the endangered dugong and nesting grounds of world significance for two endangered species of marine turtle, the green and the loggerhead, as well as habitat for four other species of marine turtle. Given the severe pressures being placed on these species elsewhere, the Great Barrier Reef may be their last secure stronghold. It is also an important breeding area for humpback and other whale species.
A wide range of fleshy algae occur, many of which are small and inconspicuous yet are highly productive and heavily grazed by turtles, fish, molluscs and sea urchins. In addition, algae are an important component of reef building processes. Fifteen species of seagrass grow throughout the reef area forming over 3,000 km2 of seagrass meadows and provide an important food source for grazing animals, including dugongs.
The Great Barrier Reef, and in particular the northern sector, is important in the historic and contemporary culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups of the coastal areas of north-east Australia. This use of, and association with, the Marine Park plays an important role in the maintenance of their cultures and there is a strong spiritual connection with the ocean and its inhabitants.
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