The history of the Great Barrier Reef is a diverse and long one. The beginnings of the reef date back as much as twenty million years and consists of generations of coral that have died and turned into unique collections of stone.
Evolution of the Reef
The stone walls that have been built up by generations upon generations of coral now find themselves covered in living organisms such as algae, coral, sponges, fish, worms, anemones, turtles, starfish, mollusks, crustaceans and a huge array of plants and animal species.
The reef is situated in an area of Australia that has been inhabited by the Aboriginals for around 40,000 years. Their tribes have fished and navigated the waters around the reef for many centuries. During periods of glaciations in the area, the Great Barrier Reef would have been dry and would have consisted of flat coastal plains.
The first reported sightings of the reef were believed to be by the Portuguese around 1522 on an expedition led by Cristovao de Mendonca off the East Coast of Australia. In 1606, the Dutch started exploration of the area, charting the west coast of Cape York. However, the first truly detailed and documented sightings of the Great Barrier Reef were by the French in 1768. A French expedition encountered the reef as it approached the east coast of Australia near Cooktown.
Rough surf conditions in the area meant that the ships had to abandon their path and turn towards New Guinea, therefore missing Australia and the reef itself. However, it was only a couple years later in 1770 when Australia and the whole length of the reef were discovered by British Lieutenant James Cook. Documentation of the Great Barrier Reef therefore officially began when Cook’s boat collided with the reef.
The repairs to the ship took place in what is now called Cooktown. During this time scientists were able to carry out scientific research of the reef, discovering that it was extremely extensive. On repairing his ship, Cook could not find a way to pass the natural barrier that the reef formed. By sailing to Lizard Island in the north, Cook was able to climb to the highest point of the island and find a break in the reef where his boat could pass through. This break in the reef is now known as Cook’s passage.
Surveying the Land
After Cook’s discovery of the Great Barrier Reef, the next person to chart the reef was William Bligh in 1792. He was on a voyage from Tahiti to the West Indies and spent two weeks passing by a part of the reef called Torres Strait. In 1793, the section of the reef known as the Torres Strait was surveyed by Bampton and Alt.
Later on between 1802 and 1803, the entire Australian coastline was surveyed by Mathew Flinders who charted the reef and walked upon it. He found safe passages through the reef by using small vessels. These passages today are known by the name “Flinder’s Passage.” In 1819 and 1820, King Philip Parker commanded a ship called the Mermaid and charted the reef in great detail.
Modern Great Barrier Reef history includes a very specific examination of the area and a documentation of species that live on the reef. Studies of the reef have unveiled the sites of around 30 shipwrecks, suggesting that the reef was known to exist further back in history but was never documented.