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How Old Is The Great Barrier Reef?

Updated Thu 01 Feb 2024

Estimated to be around 500,000 years old, the Great Barrier Reef is a fascinating piece of natural history and wonder located along Australia's East Coast. The Great Barrier Reef is undeniably one of the most spectacular and renowned natural wonders of our world. But, many of the people who visit every year don’t actually know how old it is! Studies can only provide a rough estimate, but here is a guide to the age and status of the world-famous Great Barrier Reef!

Great Barrier Reef shot of fish, colourful coral and fringing reef life

Is the Great Barrier Reef 500 million years old?

While visitors and scientists alike don’t know exactly how old the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem is, coral reefs has been estimated to date back around 500 million years. To put this into an understandable perspective, 500 million years ago was roughly when the Earth’s biodiversity exploded and single-celled organisms began to make way for more and more species. So, the coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef area are way older than humans, dinosaurs and most of the organisms we know today

However, to truly answer the question “How old is the Great Barrier Reef?” we must look at the reef’s history and evolution at an in-depth level, due to the combination of both living and dead corals making up the ecosystem. While there is evidence that many of the coral species in the waters today date back as far as twenty million years, there is speculation as to the true age of The Great Barrier Reef. Studies have shown that the modern version of the Great Barrier Reef is anywhere from 8,000 to 500,000 years old. 

Reef underwater shot with woman swimming through corals and fish

What is the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef is the earth's largest living organism, stretching over 2300km made up of over 2900 individual reefs. Spanning from far Northern Queensland, through popular tourist destinations such as the Whitsundays and Cairns and to southern QLD, it truly is a spectacular sight for humankind and animal life alike.

The reef is a truly diverse ecosystem, containing 600 types of corals and home to 1500 fish species. The Great Barrier Reef is also home to a multitude of vibrant marine life consisting of over 100 shark species, 6 of the 7 species of turtle, the endangered dugong and 35 types of rays.

Check out some more fun facts about the Great Barrier Reef that are bound to amaze and astound you... naturally! 

Check out our top Great Barrier Reef tours from the Whitsundays!

Turtle swimming through the Great Barrier Reef

The History of the Great Barrier Reef with Humans

Indigenous History of the Great Barrier Reef

Information on the reef's history dates back to the First Nations people, who lived in harmony with what we now call the Great Barrier Reef. Eating, learning from and living off the natural wonders, seafood, sea plants and diversity of the reef, local Indigenous people (such as the Ngaro People of the Whitsundays) maintained balance with this rich reef ecosystem for thousands of years before the European invasion. An interesting and advanced history of Frist Nations seafarers utilising handmade canoes to journey amongst islands and over the Great Barrier Reef fills local Indigenous tales and recounts.

The Great Barrier Reef and British Colonisation

It was widely purported that the reef was the discovery of Captain Cook in 1770 when he struck Endeavour Reef, north of Cape Tribulation, and spent six weeks there repairing the ship. Leading on from this Cook was able to discover a passage of water large enough to fit the boat through to carry on their journey, a passage that is now known as Cook's Passage. However, this viewpoint, while dominant, tells a very coloniser-skewed narrative, discounting the value, deep roots and advanced technology used by Indigenous people for thousands of years prior to the invasion.

Woman looking at a Ngaro cultural wall painting in the Whitsundays

Is the Great Barrier Reef old or young? 

Research shows that the reef was around way before its “discovery” by Caption Cook and that coral reefs have actually been around for over 500 million years. Recent research has found that the Great Barrier Reef, in geological terms, is considered relatively young at an estimated 500,000 years, with its most modern form being only 8,000 years old, having developed after the last ice age. The current reef sits on the much older dead reef and continues to grow with the formation of the reef, which is what dates back millions of years. This growth continues to change as sea levels rise and islands shift meaning the reef is completely diversified and unrecognisable from its form 1 million years ago.

Heart Reef aerial view of turquoise waters and islands

What threatens the Great Barrier Reef?

It is well known today that the reef has not reached where it is now without challenges. The reef’s natural progression of ageing is frequently disrupted by both natural and human threats. Invasive species, such as the crown of thorns starfish, deforestation and exploitation of the reef put pressure on this precious ecosystem.

Climate Change and the Great Barrier Reef

The most immediate and farthest-reaching risk is climate change, which causes mass coral bleaching of reefs due to rising ocean temperatures and levels. The reef and surrounding islands are greatly affected by El Nino and La Nina weather patterns, which are worsened and intensified through a rapidly climbing global temperature caused by the excessive burning of fossil fuels. 

Protecting the Great Barrier Reef from Climate Change

While there is still a lot of pressure facing the reef, over recent years some measures have been put in place to protect it and help it continue to grow. In 1975 the Great Barrier Reef was declared an official national park to be protected. In 1981 it gained Unesco World Heritage status and received significant funding. This funding has led to scientific research that has taught us a lot about what we know of the reef today. Protection and measures to prevent climate change are essential to help us keep researching its progress and for the future of the reef itself.

Great Barrier Reef sparkling and blue fringing reef coral garden

To see the Great Barrier Reef for yourself, dive in and witness the diverse wonders in this magical underwater jungle! 

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