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Greatest Wonders of the World: The Great Barrier Reef, Australia
The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef runs parallel to Australia’s eastern coast. Composed of living organisms, it has been called nature's greatest construction site.

Over 2, 300 km long, Australia's famous coral reef, covers a much larger area than all of Italy. Among the world's smallest organisms, the Coral Polyps are the architects of one of nature's greatest constructions, building a unique ecosystem and imposing natural monument. The “foundations” of this fascinating paradise were buried millions of years ago. The Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reefs, was voted one of Seven Natural Wonders of the World in a poll by CNN, an international news organization.

Although it was almost accidental for Europeans to discover the massive coral reef off Australia's east coast, it is hard to forget that any ship captain on his first encounter with the razor sharp banks of cord just below the water's surface. On the night of June 11, 1770, the explorer James Cook headed for the Great Barrier Reef. Until then, the reef had not appeared on a European nautical map.

According to Cooks measurement would show that the Great Barrier Reef ran between the 10th and 24th southern lines of latitude, making it more than 2,300 km long with an area of 347,800 km2. It begins on the north-west Coast of Australia off -what is now Queensland and continues into the Torres Straits of Papua New Guinea, terminating near Lady Elliot Island. It lies directly on the edge of the Australian continental plate, the reef is only 30 km off the Australian coast near Cairns, and as far as 250 km off the shore of Gladstone. Given its extreme size, the Great Barrier Reef is more easily understood divided into four section called the Far Northern, the Cairns, the Central and the Mackay Capricorn Reefs.

The whole Great Barrier is in the tropics, where the hurricane is frequently threatened. The oldest part of the Far North reef is far below the deep core sediments, which may have been around 20 to 25 million years ago. The first clear reef structure is 500,000 years old. The so-called "living reef" of organisms dates to the last glacial period some 20,000 years ago. The reef itself is really a continuous chain of over 2,900 individual reef structures, 1,000 small islands and thousands of shifting sandbanks. The reef can only be seen in its entirety from outer space.

A coral reef less than one square kilometer produces four tons of limestone exoskeleton. Therefore, the Great Barrier Reef is constantly growing and providing a greater ecological niche for countless plant and animal species. There are 359 different types of reef coral for nature's largest construction. 80 types of soft corals attach themselves to the rock. The reef is home to 1,500 different sponges and 5,000 other invertebrates, many living deep in cracks and crevasses; 800 spiny echinoderms, a class that includes starfish and sea urchins, live there too. Over 1500 species of fish regularly come to the water to seek and feed. For large predators, like the reef shark, the Great Barrier Reef is a perfect hunting ground. Mother Nature has set a rich table, and not just for the creatures that have been flooding their whole lives. At least 215 kinds of birds live off the reef and several endangered species of turtle survive only in this environment. Of the seven species of sea turtle worldwide, six can be found regularly on the Great Barrier Reef. The dugong, or sea cow, also threatened with extinction, is commonly sighted here and almost nowhere else on Earth.

A highlight of each year is the humpback whales. These wonderful animals stop here to give birth to their young in the warm reef waters on their way northward from the Antarctic. The Great Barrier Reef is, so to speak, their delivery room.

Sadly, the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. Coral reefs are abnormally sensitive ecosystems. The smallest difference can lead to unexpected damage.

* UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Great Barrier Reef was added to the UNESCO list of World Natural Heritage Sites in 1981.

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