The Great Barrier Reef lies along the east coast of Queensland, from the Gulf of Papua to Lady Elliot Island, a coral cay 100 km north-east of Bundaberg. It is administered by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (1975). The Authority has control of 345,400 sq km of marine park which, at its widest point, extends 400 km east of Mackay.

The Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Area (1981). It includes about 2900 unconnected coral reefs, 300 reef islands or sand cays, of which nearly one-third are vegetated. There are also outlying continental islands such as in the Whitsunday and Lindeman groups. Present-day reefs are about 8500 years old. They sit above layers of reef and alluvium dating back at least 2 million years.

For administrative purposes the Barrier Reef Marine Park is divided as follows:

Far Northern
Thursday Island to north of Lizard Island
Cairns
Lizard Island to Tully
Central or Townsville/Whitsunday
Tully to Proserpine
Mackay/Capricorn
Proserpine to Lady Elliot Island

Additional planning controls are asserted over coastal parts which have high tourist numbers: Cooktown/Port Douglas/Cairns/Innisfail; Hinchinbrook; and Whitsunday (Bowen to Proserpine).

The earliest recorded European contact with the Barrier Reef was James Cook whose Endeavour was damaged near Cooktown. Cook, however, did not discover the vastness of the reefs. Matthew Flinders on his Investigator expedition made a detailed survey of the coast of Queensland and reported (more accurately) on the plural 'Barrier Reefs' in volume 2 of his Voyage to Terra Australis.

In their natural state reef waters are under-endowed with nutrients and are of above-average clarity. In the absence of coral polyps the waters would be biologically sparse. Polyps, however, contain algae which absorb sunlight to produce food, beginning a rich and complex biomass. All this is dependent on an optimum water temperature of around 20ºC and water with little insoluble solids or dissolved foreign chemicals. Global warming and agricultural run-offs are potentially fatal.

The Barrier Reef has over 1500 fish species and 400 coral species. Many fish have spectacular colours and swarm in large schools. The combination of visual splendour, climate and beaches make the Barrier Reef a major tourist attraction. In the 1890s the Green Island coral cay was a pleasure-cruise destination for visitors from Cairns. Declared a national park in 1937, it pioneered the use of glass-bottomed boats in the early postwar years and opened an underwater observatory in 1954. Heron Island, another coral cay and national park (1943), is 80 km east of Gladstone. Its role as a tourist resort began in 1932, and was serviced by a flying boat from Brisbane in the early postwar years.

Among the continental islands in the Barrier Reef, Magnetic Island is one of the earliest frequented by white excursionists. About eight km from Townsville, it was a picnic destination for Townsville residents in the late nineteenth century. It has fringing coral reefs, sandy beaches and forested hills. Since the 1980s it has become a suburb of Townsville.

In addition to Magnetic Island, there is a string of resort islands on the Reef. Beginning at the most northerly resort there is Lizard Island, 270 km north of Cairns. Cook named it after the island's Monitor Lizards. The island's chief tourist attractions are big game fishing and scuba diving. Green and Fitzroy Islands are offshore from Cairns. In addition to the observatory, Green Island has accommodation units. Fitzroy Island also has accommodation units and several scuba-diving sites.

Bedarra and Dunk Islands are offshore from Wongaling and South Mission Beach. Bedarra is the smaller of the two islands, but with equally lush rainforest. It has two small, but select, resorts. Dunk Island is famous for its first permanent white inhabitants, E.J. Banfield and Bertha Banfield from 1897 until their deaths in 1923 and 1933. The island is six km long and became a tourist destination in the mid-1930s. The 400-guest accommodation dates from the 1980s.

Hinchinbrook Island and the Palm/Orpheus Island group are about 120 km and 70 km respectively north of Townsville. Hinchinbrook, the most northerly island, is a national park, 35 km long, with a striking mountain range and extensive mangrove deltas. There are also sandy bays punctuated by headlands. Palm and Orpheus Islands were tour-cruise destinations in the 1930s, and Orpheus has retained that role. There is a jetty near the resort which has bungalows and luxury villas.

The Whitsunday group of islands, offshore from Airlie Beach, has eight resort locations. From north to south, they are Hayman, Hook, Daydream, South Molle, Long, Hamilton, Lindeman and Brampton. Brampton Island is 40 km north-east of Mackay, and belongs to the separate Cumberland group of islands. Whitsunday Island is the largest of the group and is a national park (1942). Before then it was a timber reserve. Neighbouring Hook Island is about half as big, and the other resort islands vary from one to five km in length. Daydream (formerly West Molle) and South Molle Islands are between five and eight km from Shute Harbour. Their closeness to the mainland brought forth basic bungalow accommodation in the 1930s. Daydream was acquired by the Ansett group in 1947, but not developed until 1967. It was further refurbished in 2000 by owner Vaughan Bullivant when accommodation comprised 296 rooms and suites. Daydream Island was purchased by Chinese investors, China Capital Investment Group, in 2015 who planned to further develop the southern end of the island. South Molle Island has bungalows and units, fronted by a beach and jetty.

Lindeman Island is about 20 sq km and was occupied for livestock grazing in 1906. A homestead and woolshed were refurbished for tourist accommodation in 1923, and grass-hut bungalows were added. Medium-rise apartments brought accommodation to about 300 guests (1990). Brampton Island, a national park since 1936, had a rudimentary resort in the early 1930s and was a Roylen Cruises stopover in the 1950s. Roylens acquired the lease of the island in 1963 and built a jetty and an airstrip to serve their bungalows and units.

Great Keppel Island is offshore from Rockhampton. It had a permananent Aboriginal population who harvested seafood rather than relying on the land. Early twentieth century grazing was only moderately successful, although a homestead remains; it is used for a museum. The island's first resort opened in 1967, and there is apartment, bungalow and permanent-tent accommodation. The island has heath lands, forest, over 15 beaches and diverse birdlife.

Heron Island is a heavily vegetated coral cay, 42 acres in size, 70 km east of Gladstone. It had a few prewar tourist visitors, and a 40-cabin resort by 1945. It is also a bird sanctuary, and guano deposits account for the vegetation. Reef walking and scuba diving reveal spectacular sea life. The University of Queensland established a marine research station in 1951. It burnt down in 2007 and was rebuilt and reopened in 2009. There is a compact resort at one end of Heron Island.

Lady Elliot Island, also a coral cay, is 85 km north-east of Bundaberg. There are many ship wrecks in the vicinity of the island. 'Lady Elliot' was the name of the first ship reputed to pass by the island, and it was apparently later wrecked near Cardwell, 900 km to the north. A lighthouse (1873) was staffed until the 1990s and is heritage-listed. Lady Elliot Island has diverse bird and sea-life populations, and numerous scuba-diving spots. Accommodation consists of units and cabins.

Tourism has become the Barrier Reef's main industry. Mainland cities are heavily dependent on it; Cairns international airport developed as Barrier Reef tourism grew strongly in the 1980s and 1990s. Fishing is also important, although regulated by the Marine Authority. Recreational fishing accounts for about two-thirds of the catch.

CYCLONE YASI

On 3 February 2011, the Category 5 Cyclone Yasi crossed the Queensland coast, virtually centred on the area of Mission Beach and Cardwell. Various parts of the outer reef were badly damaged, but most of these were seldom visited by tourists. Damage to reefs was much less around Cairns where tourism is dependent on them. The recovery of damaged reefs would be dependent on inland storms which send down river plumes with varying concentrations of dissolved fertilizer. Among the offshore islands, Hinchinbrook was at the centre of the cyclone, Magnetic Island’s Horseshoe Bay was exposed to wind and tidal-surge damage, and Dunk and Bedarra Islands’ resorts were badly damaged. The west facing parts of Magnetic Island and Palm Island were protected from the worst of the cyclone.

There is a vast literature on the Great Barrier Reef. A few references only are cited below.

Further Reading: 

Gary Bell, The Great Barrier Reef: a world heritage national park, Archerfield, Steve Parish Publishing, 2007

James Bowen and Margarita Bowen, The Great Barrier Reef: history, science, heritage, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2002

Keith Gillett, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Frenchs Forest, Reed Books, 1984

Patricia Mather and Isobel Bennett, A coral reef handbook: a guide to the geology, flora and fauna of the Great Barrier Reef, Chipping Norton, Surry Beatty and Sons, 1993

Vincent Serventy, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Melbourne, Sun Books, 1987

Hamilton Island, Hayman Island, Magnetic Island and Palm Island entries