The Great Wall of China? The Egyptian pyramids? Easter Island heads? Ancient stones, temples, and tombs buried and uncovered after centuries?

All pale in comparison to the world’s longest living structure – the Great Barrier Reef. One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is an Australian icon and the largest coral reef system on the planet. It’s no surprise that humans are at once fascinated by and concerned for the reef system and the abundance of life that relies on it for survival.  

Not everyone gets the opportunity to dive into the waters of the Pacific Ocean and explore the Great Barrier Reef, but that doesn’t mean you can’t kick your digital flippers and learn a few fun facts about what makes the coral reef system so amazing.

One Reef to Rule Them All

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The Great Barrier Reef isn’t actually a single reef. Instead, it’s a combination of approximately 2,900 individual coral reef systems coming together to form a natural phenomenon unlike anything else on Earth. It’s a meshed maze of different coral species that are home to thousands of different sea creatures.

The massive coral reef system of the Great Barrier Reef covers a stretch of over 2,600 kilometers (1,615 miles) of ocean and has over 900 islands along its surface.

To put that into perspective, the Great Barrier Reef is:

  • The equivalent of 70 million football fields
  • Half the size of the state of Texas
  • Larger than the United Kingdom, Holland, and Switzerland combined
  • Approximately the same-sized area as Japan

The reef system attracts visitors from all over the world to explore and experience its wonders and that bodes well for the local economy.

It’s Great for the Australian Economy

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Naturally, appeal to explore the Great Barrier Reef makes it an exceptional tourist destination, and the reef is responsible for a considerable contribution to the Australian economy each year.

According to a study conducted in 2013, the Great Barrier Reef contributed more than $5 billion (estimated more than $6 billion today) in direct value added to the economy of the region, and 90% of that is related to tourism in some way.

More than 2 million tourists visit the reef every year. As a result, the tourism economy tied to the reef supports more than 64,000 jobs in the area.

It Can Be Seen From Space

Credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team

The Great Barrier Reef is arguably the most impressive of the world’s natural wonders. What makes it so impressive, or at least what makes it stand out from the rest, is that it’s the only wonder of nature that’s visibly recognizable from space. NASA’s Terra satellite took this photo of the reef back in 2001.

It’s Home to a Cornucopia of Life

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Saying the Great Barrier Reef is home to a few species of fish is a dramatic understatement. In reality, the reef is home to 10 percent of the world’s fish species, with over 1,625 different species of fish swimming its mazed reef passages and coral cays. But the wildlife supported by the Great Barrier Reef (both above and below the ocean) doesn’t end with fish.

According to barrierreef.org, the Great Barrier Reef is also home to:

  • 600+ types of soft and hard corals
  • 215 species of birds
  • 130 different varieties of sharks and rays
  • 30 species of whales and dolphins
  • 14 different species of sea snakes
  • 6 of 7 of the world’s species of marine turtles

It Acts as a Natural Water Filtration System

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The compact, intricate nature of coral reef formations make them ideal environments for natural water filtration. The size and coverage of the Great Barrier Reef make it the world’s largest natural water filter in that the interconnected coral catches and traps particles and makes the surrounding water cleaner.

This kind of natural filtration is a mixed bag. The coral reef catches both particles that are food for the habitat as well as pollutants that can cause the reef system harm.

Mass Bleaching Events Puzzle Scientists and Threaten the Reef

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Mass bleaching—a common response from coral under stress—is when entire reef sections (often hundreds or thousands of kilometers) completely bleach and lose color or turn white. Mass bleaching events are usually triggered by prolonged sea temperature changes. While small bleaching events are not so alarming, mass bleaching on a large scale can negatively affect ecosystems that rely on those reefs.

The Great Barrier Reef has undergone a number of mass bleaching events that are continued cause for concern.

The Future of the Great Barrier Reef

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The future of the Great Barrier Reef is uncertain. Many believe that humans and climate change contribute to the mass bleaching events and slow decay of the coral. That said, the living coral that make up the Great Barrier Reef’s surface today are 6,000 to 8,000 years old, which means the reef system has weathered some rough waters to get to where it is today.

But that’s nothing compared to the age of the thick layer of dead algae and coral underneath. The Great Barrier Reef is estimated to be around 500,000 years old, and scientists say the best thing that humans can do right now is keep the reef system as healthy as possible so it can continue to thrive.