Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world, stretching some 1,300miles from Lady Elliot Island to the Gulf of Papua. The Great Barrier Reef is in fact a collection of nearly 3,000 reefs, which have been evolving for the last 500,000 years. The biodiversity here is staggering: nearly 2,000 species of fish, over 100 types of sharks, thousands of mollusks and sponges, and over 300 coral varieties. It’s hard to imagine traveling to Australia without discovering the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.
One way to explore during a Great Barrier Reef cruise is by scuba diving. Novice scuba divers and experts alike can encounter prehistoric giant sea turtles and harmless hammerhead sharks, delicate clown fish and bright yellow, wafer-thin butterfly fish. There are prolific damselfish, preyed-upon, low-dwelling gobies, and striking angelfish, abundant and known for their inquisitive nature. Parrotfish grind coral with their beaks and teeth and then excrete it as sand, generating tiny islands and sandy beaches.
The Great Barrier Reef is a natural feeding ground for South Pacific wildlife such as humpback and dwarf minke whales and bottlenose dolphins. Humpbacks, having migrated from Antarctica, relax and frolic in the Great Barrier Reef. Dwarf minke whales, hardly lightweights at nearly five tons, are friendly and may curiously approach cruise ships. Agile, intelligent bottlenose dolphins are always a favorite, because of their playful personalities. Guests may also see an endangered dugong, the sea cow that likely gave rise to the mermaid myth.
Coral, the backbone of the Great Barrier Reef, creates an otherworldly backdrop for scuba diving forays, with vivid reds and startling blues saturating the underwater landscape. The reef is composed of “soft” and “hard” coral, differentiated by composition, texture, and the number of tentacles found on its connective polyps. Hard or stony corals, such as the ubiquitous staghorn, are seen in tropical, shallow waters. Soft corals are more visually appealing, have eight tentacles to hard corals’ six, and, lacking a solid exoskeleton, are squishy or leathery. Corals serve as home to marine algae, the quintessential food sources of the reef’s ecosystem. To reproduce, corals spawn into the ocean after a springtime full moon, releasing billions of eggs in every imaginable color.