Great Barrier Reef Facts For Kids

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Last Updated on April 12, 2021 by worldoftravelswithkids

Looking for some Great Barrier Reef facts for kids?  Look no further!  Probably the most famous coral reef in the world, the Great Barrier Reef is a unique ecosystem all its own and home to an astonishing variety of marine life.  Whether you’re doing some armchair travel with the kids or research for school, get ready for some mind-blowing facts about the Great Barrier Reef!

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Snorkelling is a fantastic way to see the Great Barrier Reef

Quick Facts About The Great Barrier Reef For Kids

Here is a top 10 list about the Great Barrier Reef for kids, including its most unique features:

  1. The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s LARGEST living structure: about the size of 70 MILLION football fields!!
  2. It is made up of around 2900 individual reefs and 900 islands.
  3. It is the only natural feature on Earth visible from space!
  4. This Great Barrier Reef is home to an enormous amount of marine life: 400 types of coral, 6 species of turtles, 215 species of birds, 17 species of sea snakes, and 1,500 species of fish – including Nemo (the clownfish)!
  5. The Great Barrier Reef is very old. The earliest evidence dates back 500,000 years, and the age of the current coral reefs are estimated to be 6000-9000 years old.
  6. A whopping 10% of the world’s total fish species can be found within the Great Barrier Reef alone.
  7. The Great Barrier Reef is located off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
  8. Over 2 million people visit it every year!
  9. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, being the largest coral reef system in the world.
  10. Many endangered species – like the dugong or sea cow – call the Great Barrier Reef home.
An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef

What Exactly IS the Great Barrier Reef

You might think the Great Barrier Reef is just an inanimate home for other animals, but it is actually a living thing itself!

Fun Fact: The Great Barrier Reef is not a single reef. The whole coral reef system is made up of 2900 individual reefs and 900 islands.  Coral reefs fall into five types: fringing reefs, ribbon reefs, barrier reefs, patch reefs, and platform reefs.  Only some of the Great Barrier Reef is actually barrier reefs; the rest are a combination of fringing, platform, and patch reefs.

Reefs form as individual coral builds up on top of each other.  Here is an interesting tidbit about the Great Barrier Reef for kids: even though they are hard as rocks, corals are actually alive!  They are made up of tiny marine animals called coral polyps.  Coral polyps take natural minerals from the seawater to build themselves protective skeletons made of calcium carbonate.  These hard skeletons protect the delicate polyps, and they stay inside their skeletons during most of the day.

Where Is The Great Barrier Reef Located

The Great Barrier Reef is located in the Coral Sea.  This is about 1632 km (1014 mi) off the coast of Queensland, Australia.  It is so big, though, that actually the reef starts at the Cape York Peninsula in the North, and extends all the way down to Bundaberg in the South.

Hamilton Island is a wonderful base for visiting the Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef Facts For Kids: What’s So Special About It

Condé Nast Traveller named the Great Barrier Reef one of the 7 Wonders of the World in 2018.  It also received status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, the first coral reef system to receive such an honor.

So why is it considered such a global treasure?  The World Heritage Committee considered the Great Barrier Reef to have “outstanding universal value”.  In order to have outstanding universal value, a place must have exceptional cultural or natural significance that transcends national boundaries and be of timeless importance.

To be a World Heritage Site, a place also needs to meet at least one of 10 criteria; the Great Barrier Reef fulfilled all four natural criteria:

  • An outstanding example representing the major stages of earth’s evolution.
  • An outstanding example of ongoing geological or biological processes, and of humans’ interaction with the natural environment.
  • Contain unique, rare, or incredible natural formations or features; be of exceptional natural beauty, or be a stand-out example of an important ecosystem;
  • Provide habitats for populations of rare or endangered species of plants and animals.

If those aren’t some amazing Great Barrier Reef facts for kids, I don’t know what are!

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is a huge expanse, home to a unique range of ecological communities, habitats, and species.  This makes it one of the most complex natural ecosystems in the world.

Great Barrier Reef Information For Kids: How Old Is It

 The Great Barrier Reef is about 500,000 years old.  That is, the oldest evidence for coral reefs existing in the Great Barrier Reef system dates back about 500,000 years.  This is young for coral reefs, as there is evidence for them existing as far back as 500 million years!  The current living corals in the Great Barrier Reef, though, are probably about 6000-9000 years old.

How do scientists determine the age of the Great Barrier Reef? Well, as with any corals, what they do is drill into the coral structures to get core samples.  These core samples are big cylinders of limestone.  Limestone, or calcium carbonate, is what coral skeletons are made of.

As they grow, corals leave behind growth layers – just like tree rings.  The oldest layer will be at the bottom.  Scientists can measure the age of a growth layer by comparing the ratio of uranium to thorium, two naturally occurring elements.  Since scientists know how quickly uranium decays into thorium, by measuring the ratio they can estimate how much time has passed.

How Big Is The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

 Very big!  For one thing, it is the biggest structure made by living organisms in the whole world.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Size, by the numbers:

  • Covers an area of 344,400 km² (135,000 mi²).
  • 60-250 km in width (37-155 mi).
  • Ab average depth of 35m (115 ft) in inshore waters; 2000m (6562 ft) on the outer reefs.
  • It stretches about 2300km (1400 mi) in length.

What does that really mean?  Here are some comparisons to help you imagine how big the Great Barrier Reef is:

  • It is bigger than the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined.
  • It’s half the size of Texas.
  • It is bigger than Tasmania and Victoria combined.
  • It is about the same size as Japan, Malaysia, Germany, or Italy.
  • If you were to lay it out flat, it would stretch from London to Moscow.
  • It is slightly smaller than the entire Baltic Sea.


Why Is It Called The Great Barrier Reef

Where did the Great Barrier Reef get its name?  Well, even though only some of the coral reefs that make up the system are actual barrier reefs, the Great Barrier Reef was formed along the edge of the Australian continental shelf, creating a sort of “barrier” between the continent and the rest of the Pacific Ocean.

Sitting on a coral beach at Fitzroy Island last year, when our family had a great visit to the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef Information For Kids: Who Discovered It

Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal people have known about and lived around the Great Barrier Reef for over 60,000 years.  However, from a European perspective, it was “discovered” by the English explorer and naval officer, Captain James Cook, whose ship crashed into the reef in 1770.


Fun Great Barrier Reef Facts For Kids: How Was The Great Barrier Reef Made

The Great Barrier Reef that we can visit today probably started forming after the last Ice Age, some 20,000 years ago.  The land underneath the current reef system might be remnants of volcanoes or older reefs.

Like all coral reefs, the Great Barrier Reef was formed by coral polyps building their limestone skeletons on top of each other.  The first coral polyps attached themselves to the continental shelf – the underwater land that represents the outer limit of the island of Australia.

Coral reefs grow in clear, warm shallow water.  Coral reefs protect coastlines from erosion and also play a role in creating sandy white beaches.

Marine Life – Great Barrier Reef Fish And Plants


One of the things that makes the Great Barrier Reef so special is its amazing biodiversity.  What are some interesting sea creatures found along the Great Barrier Reef?

  • 1500 species of Great Barrier Reef fish (a whopping 10% of ALL fish species in the world)!
  • 30 species of whales, dolphins, porpoises, and dugong.
  • 133 types of sharks and rays.
  • 4000 mollusks.
  • As many as 330 species of sea squirts (also known as ascidians), which measure 1-10 cm across.
  • Up to 500 species of seaweed and marine algae, including red, purple, brown, green, and blue-green algae.
  • 100 species of jellyfish.
  • 215 bird species.
  • 6 species of sea turtles.
  • 630 species of starfish and sea urchins.
  • 14 species of sea snakes.
  • 20 species of marine insects … and 5 species of marine spiders!

You can also find a wide array of giant clams, seahorses, nudibranchs, microscopic plankton and bryozoans, and more.  The smallest fish found on the reef is the Stout Infant Fish – just 7mm long! By comparison, the largest is the whale shark, which can grow up to 12m in length.

While there are many beautiful sea creatures to admire, the reef is also home to some of the ocean’s most deadly animals, including the Blue Ringed Octopus, Box Jellyfish, and Stone Fish.

The whole marine park boasts 14 marine ecosystems, including seagrass, coral reefs, coastline, lagoon floors, estuaries, open water, islands, freshwater wetlands, and more.  All of these ecosystems are vital to the functioning of the reef.

Nemo Lives On The Great Barrier Reef

The orange and white clownfish we all know and love from the Pixar film, Finding Nemo, is actually just ONE of about 30 species of clownfish that live in coral reefs around the world.

The Ocellaris clownfish, also known as the False Clownfish, is likely the most well-known species from the Anemone Fish family.  Their striking colors – ranging from orange and white to yellow and purple – make them a favorite while snorkeling, and are also popular for aquariums.

 How Much Coral Is In The Great Barrier Reef

An interesting fact about the Great Barrier Reef for kids: there are around 400 species of both soft and hard corals found there.  The longest-living coral species seems to be the boulder corals, which have a lifespan of about 1000 years!  Staghorn corals grow the tallest – up to 30 cm per year!

Coral reefs themselves can grow up to 490 feet in height.  Corals need water to survive, but they also need sunlight.  This is why they prefer to grow in warm, shallow waters.  You won’t find corals growing above sea level, but you also won’t find them growing where the water is too deep, either.

 Who Owns The Great Barrier Reef

There are more than 70 traditional owner groups among Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders.  Their relationship with the reef goes back some 60,000 years.  The Great Barrier Reef is very important to their culture, traditions, and spiritual beliefs.  They are considered the traditional owners.

However, in 1975, the Great Barrier Reef was designated a Marine Park and is governed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Is the Great Barrier Reef Dying

The Great Barrier Reef is fairly resilient and has survived, in one form or another, for millions of years.  However, it is currently facing a whole host of serious threats.  Everything from climate change and warming ocean temperatures to pollution and invasive species. According to a new study, the Great Barrier Reef has lost 50% of its corals since 1995.


What Are The Major Threats To The Great Barrier Reef

The most serious threats to the reef are climate change, pollution, over-fishing, and crown-of-thorns starfish.

Cyclones, oil spills, and shipping are additional issues having an adverse effect on coral reef health.  Also pesticides from farming, sediment runoff, and eutrophication – that’s when excessive algae-growth in a body of water reduces the amount of oxygen in the water, making it hard for other plants and animals to survive.

What Is Coral Bleaching

Coral bleaching is when coral polyps expel the tiny algae that live inside their tissues, causing the coral to turn white.  These algae are crucial to the health of coral polyps, providing up to 90% of their energy.  A bleaching event does not immediately kill the coral, but it does put them under severe stress.  They are at a greater risk of dying, especially if they remain under stress for a long time.

What causes coral bleaching?  In a word – stress.  This includes an increase in water temperature, extreme low tides, excess sun exposure, agricultural runoff, and pollution.  All of these events create a stressful environment for the coral and cause it to bleach.

Climate Change & Rising Ocean Temperatures

Is global sea warming a significant contributing factor to the coral bleaching occurring in the Great Barrier Reef?  Yes, definitely.

In fact, climate change – and the resulting ocean warming – is probably the single greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef.  Some scientists warn that unless we can keep global warming to below 1-2°C, even the Great Barrier Reef may not be able to survive.

Crown of Thorns Starfish

Crown-of-Thorns Starfish

Crown-of-thorns starfish are large (up to 1m in size!) starfish covered in venomous spines.  They are normally an important part of a healthy reef system.  They feed on faster-growing corals, giving slower-growing species a chance to catch up, thus adding to the diversity of the reef.  But sometimes there are big outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish and this can cause big problems for coral reefs, as they devour the coral.

What causes an outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish?  Agricultural runoff can create a nutrient imbalance that favors the starfish.  Overfishing is another problem when you remove the starfish’s natural predators.

Can I Visit The Great Barrier Reef Without Damaging It

Yes!  In fact, unlike what you might think, visiting the Great Barrier Reef with your kids is good for it.  Visitors pay an Environmental Management Charge which helps to pay for the day-to-day management of the Great Barrier Reef. This is important for its conservation!

Here are some ways you can visit the Great Barrier Reef without damaging it.

Stay At An Eco Resort

There are a number of eco-lodges near the Great Barrier Reef.  Many of which are also top-notch research facilities.  In addition to low-impact accommodations, many of these lodges offer hands-on learning on their tours. Here are just a few:

  • Heron Island is famous for its world-class ecological research on reef ecosystems.
  • Lady Elliot Island is a pioneer in the zero plastic movements, having banned single-use plastics way back in 2012.  They also offset 100% of the carbon emissions from flights to and from the island.
  • Pumpkin Island runs completely on wind and solar power.  It also uses all locally-made, organic guest amenities, and biodegradable cleaning products.

After seeing the Great Barrier Reef up close, you’ll probably feel even more inspired to protect it.

 Learn Facts About The Great Barrier Reef

Head to Townsville to visit Reef HQ, the largest living coral reef aquarium in the world!  It is chockablock full of amazing Great Barrier Reef information for kids, the reef’s complicated biodiversity, threats – and what scientists are doing to protect it.

Download their Eye on the Reef app to take pictures of any threats you see as you visit the Reef – from coral bleaching to the crown-of-thorns starfish.  Scientists at Reef HQ use data gathered through the app to map out these and other threats, helping them stay on top of reef conservation.

 Get Active In Reef Conservation

“Citizen science” is actually an important part of scientific research in almost any field.  It helps scientists and researchers gather as much data as possible to feed into their predictive models.  There are many ways to get involved with conservation science on the Great Barrier Reef.

  • Help scientists monitoring the reef’s health by signing up for ReefSearch.  Every time you go diving, snorkeling, or even just walking around the reef, use your ReefSearch field guide to record key bits of information about coral health, species you spot, and any garbage you find.
  • Coral Watch is a University of Queensland initiative focused on bleaching events.  They will send you a kit that includes a colour-coded slate, allowing you to record the colour of different corals you come across.  Then, upload your findings via an app to their worldwide colour-monitoring scientific database.
  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority itself runs the Eye on the Reef.  Use their app or log in online to report any significant findings you come across on your reef visits.  This might be bleached or damaged coral, crown-of-thorns sightings, or stranded or sick wildlife.
  • Join a beach clean-up event to pick up plastic from beaches and oceans.  Plastic waste is a huge problem, with an estimated 40,000 pieces floating around every square kilometer of ocean. That’s a lot of plastic!  The Tangaroa Blue Foundation organizes regular beach clean-up events; check their Facebook page to find out when the next one will be!

What Can I Do To Help Save The Great Barrier Reef

It might seem like too big a problem for just one person to tackle, but there are actually lots of things you can do to help protect coral reefs from dying out:

  • Plant trees.
  • Help reduce pollution by recycling, keeping things like plastics out of landfills.
  • Conserve water.
  • Support reef-friendly activities and responsible Great Barrier Reef tourism companies.
  • Don’t throw any garbage into the water.
  • Volunteer for a coral reef clean-up!
  • Stick to designated areas and paths when you visit.
  • Offset your carbon emissions when you travel.  Look for a program like Greenfleet which plants biodiverse forests of native species.

You can also become a “Citizen of the Reef”.  Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef is a global group aimed at saving the Great Barrier Reef through daily personal action.  To become a citizen, simply sign up, choose a color, and pick your task.  This is a personal commitment you make towards positive environmental change, including things like:

  • Bring your own bag to the grocery store.
  • Use your own reusable water bottle or thermos.
  • Say no to single-use plastic straws.
  • Reduce food waste.
  • Sponsor a crown-of-thorns starfish diver.
We visited the Great Barrier Reef from Fitzroy Island.

How To Visit The Great Barrier Reef

As many as 2 million people visit the Great Barrier Reef every year.  There are lots of ways to visit the Great Barrier Reef and many different things you can do.  From white water rafting to scenic helicopter flights or hot air ballooning, and even Low Isles Sailing Cruises or a seaplane flight over the Whitsunday Islands.

Where is the best place to visit the Great Barrier Reef?  There are a few great places to start your Great Barrier Reef adventure.  The best ones being Cairns, Port Douglas, and Fitzroy.  Leaving from Cairns or Port Douglas, it takes about 45 to 90 minutes to get to the Great Barrier Reef.


Facts About The Great Barrier Reef For Kids: A Final Thought

The Great Barrier is truly one of the most fascinating natural environments on earth.  Teeming with life, there is so much great information for kids to learn about ecosystems, marine life, and more. Whether you take a virtual tour from home or actually go see this place in person, we invite you to travel the Great Barrier Reef with your kids!

Want to learn more Great Barrier Reef facts for kids?  Here are some awesome books about the Great Barrier Reef for kids.  Click each one for current prices on Amazon.

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Great Barrier Reef Facts For Kids

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