Fact sheet - The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, 2012

  The Great Barrier Reef is the world's most extensive coral reef system and has some of the richest biological diversity on Earth. This fact sheet provides a description of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Size of the Reef

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area extends over 2 000 kilometres and covers 348 000 km2 on the north-east continental shelf of Australia. As the world's most extensive coral reef system, it is one of the best known marine protected areas. The Great Barrier Reef's diversity reflects the maturity of the ecosystem which has evolved over many thousands of years.

Reef Environment

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area contains extensive areas of seagrass, mangrove, sandy and muddy seabed communities, inter-reefal areas, deep oceanic waters and island communities.

Contrary to popular belief, the Great Barrier Reef is not a continuous barrier, but a broken maze of around 3 000 individual reefs, of which 760 are fringing reefs along the mainland or around islands. Some have coral cays. The reefs range in size from less than one hectare to over 1 000 square kilometres, and in shape from flat platform reefs to elongated ribbon reefs.

Marine life

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area provides habitat for many diverse forms of marine life. There are an estimated 1 500 species of fish and over 360 species of hard, reef-building corals. More than 4 000 mollusc species and over 1 500 species of sponges have been identified.

Other well-represented animal groups include anemones, marine worms, crustaceans and echinoderms.

The extensive seagrass beds are an important feeding ground for the dugong, a mammal species internationally listed as vulnerable. The reef also supports a variety of fleshy algae that are heavily grazed by turtles, fish, sea urchins and molluscs.

The reef contains nesting grounds of world significance for the endangered loggerhead turtle, and for green, hawksbill and flatback turtles, which are all listed as vulnerable. It is also a breeding area for humpback whales that come from the Antarctic to give birth in the warm waters.

The islands and cays support around 215 bird species, many of which have breeding colonies there. Reef herons, osprey, pelicans, frigatebirds, sea eagles and shearwaters are among the seabirds that have been recorded.

Cultural importance

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is also of cultural importance, containing many archaeological sites of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin, including fish traps, middens, rock quarries, story sites and rock art.

Some notable examples occur on Lizard and Hinchinbrook Islands, and on Stanley, Cliff and Clack Islands where there are spectacular galleries of rock paintings.

There are over 30 historic shipwrecks in the area, and on the islands are ruins, operating lighthouses and other sites that are of cultural and historical significance.

Managing the Reef

The Australian and Queensland Governments have a cooperative and integrated approach to managing the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is the Australian Government agency responsible for overall management, and the Queensland Government, particularly the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency, provides day-to-day management of the marine park for the Authority.

For more information on management of the Great Barrier Reef, visit http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/gbr/index.html

The Facts

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area:

  • Covers an area of 348 000 square kilometres - bigger than Victoria and Tasmania combined or the equivalent area of Italy or Japan
  • Is more than 2 300 kilometres long - equal in length to the entire west coast of the USA from the Canadian to the Mexican borders
  • Extends between 70 and 250 kilometres offshore from the low water mark on the mainland coast along north-eastern Australia
  • Includes around 3 000 separate coral reefs, some 900 islands and all waters within the outer boundaries of the marine park.
  • Is about seven per cent comprised of coral reefs
  • Includes extensive aquatic biodiversity, from coastal estuarine systems, shallow inshore fringing reefs and 43 000 square kilometres of seagrass meadows (including 23 per cent of the known global species diversity) to deep oceanic waters more than 2 000 metres deep
  • Includes more than 2 000 square kilometres of mangroves, with species representing 54 per cent of the world's mangrove diversity