The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world's seven natural wonders. It is a place of breathtaking beauty, and the one natural phenomenon on earth that can be easily sighted from outer space.
In its entirety from north to south it is longer than the Great Wall of China, comprising more than 3,000 individual reef systems myriad lagoons, atolls, coral outcrops and sand cays and covering some 350,000 square kilometres.
It is also the most extensive, intricate and varied expanse of living corals in the world and as such was classified as a World Heritage site in 1981.
This incredible feat of engineering by nature was formed on an underwater chain of limestone hills lying between the latitudes of 10° 41' south and 24° south. The inshore waters adjacent to the reef are universally deep and sheltered, and often there are narrow yet navigable channels winding through the coral.
This is the case around the four reefs closest to the Whitsunday Islands: Hardy, Line, Hook and Bait Reefs. There are also large pontoons located at these reefs to accommodate tourist boats and helicopters.
A brief history of coral
The history and lifespan of coral reefs can be traced back over some 450 million years, and the actual process that brings about the formation of the corals is as remarkable as it is intriguing.
Coral is a living animal, a polyp, and it is related to a large group of animals comprising jelly fish, sea anemones and hydroids. Polyps are best described as carnivores: tiny meat-eating animals that live in colonies in their millions. After germination a single polyp splits into two and replicates itself, and the offspring attach themselves to other polyps.
They are amazingly busy in this procedure; one polyp can create a colony of 25,000 'family members' in just three years. Their respective types determine the form and colour of the coral and their colony continues to reproduce in what becomes an underwater blaze of incredible colour. Polyps can only exist in waters above 18°C; therefore they thrive in tropical waters.
Flora and Fauna
The Great Barrier Reef has been millions of years in the making. It has grown over a very long period of time to a point where it is now up to 40 nautical miles wide in some parts, and the eastern-most edge is 80 nautical miles offshore.
It is an amazingly vibrant and pulsating underwater garden made up of the largest collection of corals on earth more than 400 varieties and it provides a haven and breeding ground for over 1,500 species of tropical fish, 200 types of birds, and numerous reptiles, including sea turtles and giant clams that have lived for more than a century.
Huge humpback whales are among 30 species of whales, dolphins and dugongs that frequent these island and reef waters along with giant manta rays.
The Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef provide the world's greatest underwater playground, and amongst the other Whitsunday islands Hamilton Island has many easy options when it comes to getting there: boat, helicopter and seaplane.