The Great Barrier Reef is one of the largest reef systems in the world so we have gathered some amazing great barrier reef facts for kids. It is called a system because it is made up of almost 3000 small reefs and 900 small islands that stretch about 2600 Kilometers (1600 miles) long along the north east coast of Queensland, Australia, in the Coral Sea. It is so large, it can be seen from outer space and there are many satellite pictures taken of it. In 1981, is was named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site because it supports such a massive and diverse amount of life. No other World Heritage site contains such biodiversity. According to the UNESCO in the Great Barrier Reef “there are over 1500 species of fish, about 400 species of coral, 4000 species of mollusk and some 240 species of birds, plus many other species of sea life.”
Great Barrier Reef Facts For Kids
History of Reef
The Great Barrier Reef has a very long history and it is very old. The formation of the Great Barrier Reef is related to the location of the continent of Australia. As the landmasses were moving to their current positions on the Earth, Australia moved northward to the more tropical waters that are warmer. Volcanoes in Queensland helped form the Coral Sea Basin about 25 million years ago. The combination of the warmer water and the more shallow water in the Coral Sea allowed the conditions to be perfect for coral to begin growing. Coral needs water temperatures above 18 degrees Celsius (about 65 degrees Fahrenheit). Coral needs a lot of sun light so it does not grow deeper than about 30 meters (about 99 feet). Most coral reefs are found around the world in clear, clean, shallow, warm water.
Corals are marine invertebrates that live in tightly formed colonies. These corals live and die, creating special places around the shallow waters of landforms where many species of fish and sea creatures can live. The reefs are formed by coral that has died and turned into calcium carbonate called aragonite. This aragonite or coral skeletons become a base in which more coral can grow.
The Great Barrier Reef is so important to ecology because it is the home for so many different species of life. And many of the species are only found in the Great Barrier Reef area. Some are endangered of becoming extinct so it is very important that this valuable area is protected. There are 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises that either live in the great Barrier Reef year around or travel through there as they migrate from summer birthing grounds to winter feeding areas.
One reason the Great Barrier Reef is in the World Heritage site is because of the presence of the Dugongs, Sea Cows. They are in the same family as the Manatee that live off the coast of Florida. They are endangered, and even though they probably won’t totally disappear they are losing habitat all over the world.
There are over 200 species of birds that call the Great Barrier Reef home. Some are true sea birds like the White-breasted sea eagles, but many live along the coast of Queensland eating fish, snails or insects.
One very important member of the Great Barrier Reef community is the six species of sea turtles: Green, Leatherback, Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Flatback and Olive Ridley. The Green turtle is endangered. All of the turtles lay their eggs on the sandy beaches of Queensland. When the tiny turtles emerge they run into the warm water before they are eaten by circling birds. They can travel thousands of miles around the oceans before they return to the place of their birth to lay their own eggs and continue the cycle of life.
There are 14 species of sea snakes that call the Great Barrier Reef home. There are only 50 species in the entire world. All sea snakes are air breathing and prefer the warm shallow waters to feed and rest in.
There are over 1500 species of fish in the Great Barrier Reef as well. Just the fish alone make this area a rich and vibrant community. And if that isn’t enough, there are over 5000 species of mollusks in the Great Barrier Reef. These include clams, octopus and squid.
The star of the Great Barrier Reef and the builders of the reef are the over 400 species of coral. The coral is the keystone species that makes it desirable for all the other species to live there. These coral have many different shapes and colors that allow fish to hide from predators.
Best things to See in Reef
There are beautiful and unusual things to see in the Great Barrier Reef, such as the Giant Clams that can reach over 3 feet long (1 meter) and live into their 70’s. The turtles are always very popular to see gliding through the water or grazing on the sea grass. These lovely creatures can live to be 100 years old or more.
Animals and Fishing in Reef
Commercial and private fishing is allowed on the Great Barrier Reef. It is a business that generates over $1 Billion annually and employs several thousand people along the Queensland coast. There are places within the Great Barrier Reef where no fishing or hunting is allowed by anyone.
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most popular places in the world to scuba dive and snorkel because of the diversity of sea life and the clear warm waters. But there are also numerous boat excursions to watch whales from or glass bottom boats that allow an underwater view of the reef without even getting wet. Helicopters fly over the reef to allow tourist a birds-eye view of the vastness of the Great Barrier Reef. It is estimated that 1.4 million tourist visit the Great Barrier Reef every year.
Tourism in the Great Barrier Reef generates about $4 Billion dollars per year. There are strict controls on the activities allowed in the reef area so that the coral isn’t damaged by boats and the sediment isn’t stirred up, clouding the water and damaging the coral. However, many advocates of the Great Barrier Reef argue that it should be closed to all human visitors in order to truly protect the species that call it home. There are places that are preserved and no one is allowed to be in those areas.
Humans causing pollution in Reef
Even in the vast Great Barrier Reef humans are causing pollution and contamination that is having a terrible effect on the coral. Some of the coral are suffering from diseases that are causing them to die. It is believed , and the research supports, that human activity in these areas are having a direct effect on the health of the coral. Where tourist “platforms” are located the coral is suffering from more disease than in other places in the Great Barrier Reef. These “platforms” are places where tourist boats drop off the visitors. From these platforms tourist can snorkel, scuba dive, eat, relax and take pictures. It is believed that high amounts of sunscreen is settling in these areas as well as large amount of bird droppings, from birds resting on the platforms and in some cases, hoping to steal food for the distracted tourists.
Another factor in certain areas is the agricultural runoff of chemicals from farms and ranches near the coastline in Queensland. This run-off contains fertilizers and pesticides that is changing the pH in some areas and upsetting the delicate balance needed for the coral to live.
1. UNESCO website: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/154
2. Australia Government: Department of Environment, Link to State Party report on the GBR, 2013