The World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and the largest living structure, visible from outer space and stretching over 2000km in length along the Queensland coast in Australia.
The Whitsundays region is ideally located near the central section of the Great Barrier Reef, and is the perfect base to explore this aquatic wonderland. The Great Barrier Reef protects the Whitsunday Coast and Islands from huge ocean swells providing the region with some of the safest and smoothest sailing and cruising waters in the world.
The magical, naturally formed Heart Reef is located in the Great Barrier Reef near the Whitsundays and is best viewed from the air. Take a seaplane or helicopter flight to admire this beautiful sight, or surprise a loved one with the ultimate gesture over the region's most romantic natural icon.
If scuba diving is your passion, then the Whitsundays is a paradise. Home to tens of thousands of species of brilliantly coloured fish, coral and other marine life including whales, dolphins and turtles enjoy the diversity of your underwater playground. Local companies are able to cater for every skill level from novice to dive master.
If snorkelling is more your style, then the warm shallow waters of the Whitsundays provide some of the most colourful fish and coral formations anywhere in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Or stay dry, and enjoy the reef views from an underwater viewing chamber, glass bottom boat and coral semi-submersible. With Cruise Whitsundays' Reefsleep, there is even an opportunity to spend a night on a pontoon under the stars in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef! There is definitely a reef experience for everyone.
The Whitsundays also has some of the best fishing in Queensland. Charter Vessels operating out of Shute Harbour, Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island offer a variety of trips to the rich waters of the outer Great Barrier Reef chasing, tuna, mackerel and coral trout, or tagging and releasing sailfish and the legendary black marlin.
More than just fish and coral
The Great Barrier Reef is home to a stunning array of animals, from microscopic plankton to whales weighing more than 100 tonnes. More than just fish and coral, the Great Barrier Reef supports:
• 1625 species of fish, including 1400 coral reef species
• More than 3000 species of molluscs (shells)
• 630 species of echinoderm (starfish, sea urchins)
• 14 breeding species of sea snakes
• 215 species of birds including 22 species of seabirds and 32 species of shorebirds
• Six of the world's seven species of marine turtle
• 30 species of whales and dolphins
• One of the world's most important dugong populations
• 133 species of sharks and rays
The different types of animals found along the Great Barrier Reef help make it one of the richest and most complex natural systems on earth. While there is a lot known about some of the animals that make the reef home, vast amounts of information and species are yet to be discovered.
Conservation and Protection of the Great Barrier Reef
As the Great Barrier Reef is such an intrinsic part of Australian culture and the local tourism industry, conservation and protection of the Reef is of paramount concern to Tourism Whitsundays. The local tourism industry is very conscious of educating visitors to our beautiful region about how to enjoy the Reef, while ensuring there is no negative impact on the environment.
All boat and tour operators provide educational information about the Reef and local marine life, and warn visitors to 'look, not touch' when participating in snorkelling and diving activities. One of the best ways the local tourism industry can protect the Great Barrier Reef is to increase awareness of its unique and wonderful ecosystem, and educate visitors on the dangers which threaten the future of the Reef. Many visitors who experience the Great Barrier Reef in the Whitsundays leave as crusaders, and continue to spread the message of protection once they arrive home.
The recent global coral bleaching event in March 2016 was the result of higher than average sea temperatures which took place over a longer time period than average, and in northern Australia was compounded by the El Nino-Southern Oscillation which is characterised by warmer temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.
While coral bleaching has affected the northern part of Queensland, corals in the Whitsundays have had minimal negative impact. The majority of the Whitsundays' corals have been unaffected by the global bleaching event.
It is important to note that bleaching events are not new to the Reef – there have been three previous major bleaching events since the 1970's. Studies of these bleaching events clearly demonstrate the Reef's resilience, with coral regrowth being more robust and able to better withstand the risk of future bleaching.
Some of the ways tourism operators can get involved with Reef protection is through programs such as 'Eye on the Reef', which is a monitoring and assessment program which enables anyone who visits the Reef to get involved. Visitors and locals can contribute to the long-term protection of the Reef by collecting valuable information about the state of the Reef and its marine animals. There are a number of ways to get involved, including downloading the Eye on the Reef app to share photos and help identify wildlife, or more experienced visitors can use an underwater monitoring slate to record specific Reef health observations.
As a World Heritage Area, the Great Barrier Reef is managed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), responsible for the protection and monitoring of the Reef. GBRMPA directly manages activities in the Marine Park, implements plans and policies for Reef use and protection, and works with local communities and industries that depend on the Reef for recreation and livelihoods, including tourism and the 'Eye on the Reef' program. Find out more about GBRMPA here.
Advocates for the Reef
Most marine tourism operators in the Whitsundays are members of the WCBIA (Whitsunday Charter Boat Industry Association) which ensures that the health of the reef and our environment is most important and that tourism impacts are monitored and best practice procedures implemented and periodically reviewed.
WCBIA also works closely with GBRMPA and other Government bodies to ensure that our region and our environment has a voice. One of these projects, the Reef Catchments River Restoration Project and Healthy Waterways Program seeks to advance science and standards of practice of river restoration and improving the health of the waterways throughout the region which ultimately affects the health of the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef.
Eco accreditation by Eco Tourism Australia has been adopted by many Whitsunday tourism operators and strict audits keep all members following best practice procedures and monitoring environmental impacts while on tour.
It can be said that the more tourists who are able to visit our Great Barrier Reef in a monitored and sustainable manner, the more passionate ambassadors to care for the future of the Great Barrier Reef.