Long, long ago, a very huge sea was home to many creatures that lived very happily. All was well in the sea world until a group of evil sharks came there and created havoc. All the inhabitants of the sea became scared and after the sharks left, they decided to do something to protect themselves.

They built barriers in the sea to prevent the sharks from coming there again. The evil sharks couldn’t pass the barriers and everyone celebrated their victory by having a large party. They decorated the sea with a lot of glittering decoration and now we can see the remains of that party decorations and barriers in the form of the Great Barrier Reef.

This was how the Great Barrier Reef along the northeast coast of Australia came into being, according to a legend about this wonder of the natural world. This 2,600km long system of stunning coral reefs is made up of nearly 3000 coral reefs and over 600 islands! And it is the single largest structure built by living organisms and can also be seen from space.

Leaving myth aside, let us turn to the actual historical and evolutionary details of this reef. The Great Barrier Reef is perhaps almost 20 million years old — with the present living reef estimated to be 6,000 to 8,000 years — composed of living corals growing on many generations of dead corals and together they have formed great underwater structures that also contains thousands of species of marine plans and animals, such as algae, anemones, sponges, fish, worms, starfish, turtles, molluscs, snakes, crustaceans, and an extraordinary array of thousands of species of plants and animals.

A short introduction of what corals are will help you understand the wonder that these reefs really are. Corals are compact colonies of marine animals called polyps. Each polyp is a spineless animal just a few centimetres long, and secretes calcium carbonate that turns into a hard outer skeleton to protect its soft body. After they die, the skeletons remain as coral reefs and more corals grow on them. Corals grow at about 1cm in height per year so it takes thousands of years to form very large reef structures. Reefs can be very dangerous for boats and ships as the hard structures can damage sea vessels. Reefs are also known as rainforests of the sea.

Aborigines, the natives of Australia, and Torres Strait Islander, those living on islands between Australia and New Guinea, have always known about the reefs because they travelled and hunted in the waters. The Aborigines also had special canoes to travel to the many islands and outer reefs along the Queensland coast, so these were the first discoverers of the Great Barrier Reef.

It was actually a Frenchman, Louis de Bougainville who came upon the Great Barrier Reef before Captain Cook, in June 1768, but he turned north towards Asia due to rough weather. Later, on 11 June 1770, Captain Cook James, the discoverer of Australia, came upon the reef by ‘accident’ when his ship, the Endeavour, crashed into it and almost sank. They managed to land on what is today Queensland, Australia, and the place is now called Cooktown.

The reefs got their name when Captain Matthew Flinders, the first person to circumnavigate Australia and identify it as a continent, charted a safe passage through the reefs. And the passage he discovered, by sending small boats ahead to check the depth of the water, is known as Flinders Passage.

So much for the history of the Great Barrier Reef, let us now turn to the amazing plants and animals that live there and make it one of the most fascinating places in the world.

Around 14000 different plants and animals live in the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem, including some endangered species and some that are only found there. This wonder of the natural world is home to or visited by 1500 species of fish, 5,000 species of molluscs, 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, six of the seven species of sea turtles in the world, 14 species of sea snakes (all sea snakes are venomous), around 125 species of shark, stingray, skates or chimaeras, 49 species of pipefish and nine species of seahorse.

Seven species of frogs live on the islands, and around 215 species of birds come to the reef or nest or roost on the islands, including 22 species of seabirds and 32 species of shorebirds. Saltwater crocodiles live in mangroves and salt marshes on the coast near the reef but do not have nests on the reefs or live in it.

Coming to corals, 400 species of corals, both hard corals and soft corals are found in the Great Barrier Reef, along with 500 species of seaweed or marine algae. The islands there have 2,195 known plant species, with three that are not found anywhere else in the world.

Pollution and climate change is damaging this natural wonder, like other parts of our planet. Development around the coast is destroying natural marine and coastal habitats and poor quality water from towns are polluting the sea. Warmer and more polluted water around the coral reef is likely to slow down calcification, which makes the coral grow and become strong, and bleach the corals. This will invariably pose a danger to other living organisms there and, like the rainforests of the land, these rainforests of the sea will shrink. Visitors flock from around the world to marvel at its beauty, they dive and snorkel among its breathtaking coral gardens and beautiful islands.

Updated Dec 29, 2012 02:53am

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