The Great Barrier Reef's animal visitors

The Great Barrier Reef’s warm waters are a marine magnet attracting creatures from delicate butterflies to 100-tonne humpback whales.
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The Great Barrier Reef’s warm waters are a marine magnet attracting creatures from delicate butterflies to 100-tonne humpback whales.

The currents and trade winds bring creatures from all over the world to the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Butterflies for the coastal rainforest and whales and dolphins for the warm tropical waters. They all prosper in the reef’s unique ecosystem.

Whales, turtles and reptiles

The biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef is home to a bewildering array of marine creatures as well as attracting rare and threatened species. The reef hosts six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle. They arrive on the beaches and coral atolls to lay their eggs. Humpback, dwarf minke and pilot whales swim up the coast from the cold waters of the Southern Ocean to breed in the warm waters of the reef. And fourteen different varieties of sea snake are drawn to the reef, which offers them an ideal habitat. 

Birds of the reef

The skies above the reef are home to at least 23 species of seabird and 41 shorebirds. They arrive to breed, forage and nest on the islands and along the coastal hinterland. Thirty-two species of migratory birds spend time on the reef. They include an estimated 2,880,000 oriental pratincoles, 360,000 great knots, 270,000 red-necked stints, 180,000 bar-tailed godwits and 70,000 black-tailed godwits. There are 140,000 sharp-tailed sandpipers, 118,000 curlew sandpipers and 10,000 broad-billed sandpipers. You can walk along the beaches of the coral atolls or explore the mangroves and rainforests and marvel at the richness of birdlife that has migrated from all over the world.

Corals, plankton and fish

You won’t see them all, but the reef is home to a staggering 1,400 varieties of coral and 1,625 species of fish. Some call the reef home, others are visitors attracted by the biodiversity and the prospect of breeding. Soft corals, jellyfish and sponges drift in from the Coral Sea. There are more than 150 species of soft corals and more than 100 species of jellyfish – including blue bottles and the deadly box jellyfish. Plankton drifts towards the reef and provides a vital source of food for whales. The warm waters also attract such rare and beautiful fish as seahorses, barramundi cod and Maori wrasse.

Molluscs, crustaceans and shells

When you wander along the beaches you will see, washed up along the shoreline, a small but intensely beautiful sample of the shells which were once homes to over 3,000 species of molluscs (clams, oysters, cuttlefish, nudibranchs, chitons and snails) which drift across the Coral Sea. Some of these shells – like helmet shells, triton shells and tridacnid clams – are protected. Others, like the stromb shell, dove shell, cowry shell and nautilus shell are treasures of rare beauty. You will gasp at the wonderland that awaits the watchful beachcomber.


See the Great Barrier Reef's animal visitors first hand

The largest and arguably the most majestic visitors to the Great Barrier Reef are the pods of whales that come to the reef to court and mate. At certain “hotspots” between June and August, Dwarf Minke Whales seek out and interact with divers and snorkellers.

Between November and March, nightly tours show how the Turtle Rookery at Mon Repos comes alive with loggerhead turtles laying eggs and leaving the hatchlings to make their way to sea.

Between May and June, catch large groups of Manta Rays gliding through the reef at Lady Elliot Island.

Being a human visitor doesn’t mean being totally out of your comfort zone on the reef — on Fitzroy Island you can explore the undersea world with sleek underwater SEABOB craft to aid your movements.

You can also become a nocturnal visitor by sleeping under the stars, 26 nautical miles from shore.