Marine Life of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, filled with beautiful coral and unique marine life. It is made up of thousands of individual reefs, along with hundreds of islands. This massive natural wonder supports an amazingly diverse ecosystem, made up of 350 different species of dazzling corals, over 1,500 species of tropical fish, 10,000 types of sponges, 125 types of sharks, and 4,000 species of mollusks.

While you’re visiting the Great Barrier Reef, whether you’re on a cruise, scuba diving, or snorkeling, you’re bound to see the amazing marine life that calls this place home. Here are some of the most common animals you can see:


A garden of colorful corals in Agincourt Reef
A garden of colorful corals in Agincourt Reef. Image: Tourism Queensland

Coral is incredibly important for a reef’s structure and plays a large part in creating the gorgeous colors and shapes the reef system is known for. A coral is actually a colony of small polyps, which range in size from microscopic to a few inches long. When a polyp attaches to a rock on the sea floor, it begins to multiply and form a colony; over time, many colonies merge to form a reef. It’s taken 500,000 years for the Great Barrier Reef to evolve!

There are two types of coral that inhabit the Great Barrier Reef:

  • Hard Corals
    • Have hard, chalky skeletons that form the backbone of the reef’s structure (because of this, they’re also known as reef-building corals)
    • Most hard corals have a symbiotic relationship with marine algae; the coral provides a protected home, and the colorful algae produces energy for itself as well as the coral
    • Typically found in shallow tropical waters, where the algae can get plenty of sun
    • The most common type in the Great Barrier Reef is the staghorn variety, which forms a limestone casing over time
  • Soft Corals
    • Lack a solid exoskeleton, so they’re squishy and leathery to the touch
    • Often more visually striking than hard coral, with flowing or feathery tentacles in a wide range of colors
    • Each polyp has 8 tentacles, which are used to capture plankton and other microscopic food sources


Beautiful lionfish in the Great Barrier Reef
A beautiful lionfish amongst the corals. Image: Tourism Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef is home to over 1,500 different species of tropical fish. You’ll find everything from the world’s largest fish (whale sharks) to one of the smallest (stout infantfish)! Fish like mahi-mahi and Atlantic blue marlin are plenty, making the Great Barrier Reef a diver’s paradise! The major fish families of the Great Barrier Reef include:

  • Angelfish
  • Butterfly Fish
  • Cardinal Fish
  • Clown Fish
  • Damselfish
  • Gobies
  • Groupers and Cods
  • Parrot Fish
  • Sharks
  • Surgeon Fish
  • Trigger Fish
  • Trout
  • Wrasse

Dolphins and Whales

Whalewatching tour in Hervey Bay, Australia
Whalewatching tour in Hervey Bay. Image: Tourism Queensland

You can find up to 30 different species of dolphins and whales around the Great Barrier Reef looking to feed and find shelter for their young. The most common types of whales and dolphins are:

  • Humpback Whales
    • One of Australia’s most iconic marine mammals, humpback whales are quite common and a favorite to see while diving or on whale watching cruises
    • These whales migrate annually between the Antarctic and the Great Barrier Reef
    • They can grow up to 40 or 50 feet long, and adult females are slightly larger than males
    • They spend their time playing and relaxing, and are known for their amazing breaching and tail slapping displays
  • Dwarf Minke Whales
    • Only slightly smaller than their cousin the humpback whale, these whales average just less than 30 feet in length and weigh up to 5 tons
    • Dwarf Minke Whales are rather social and will often approach boats, making it easy to spot them
    • Queensland is the only place in the world where you can swim with dwarf minke whales!
  • Bottlenose Dolphins
    • These are the most common type of dolphin you’ll see in the Great Barrier Reef
    • They are social animals, living in pods of 10-1,000. They’re also very curious and can often be found approaching boats, playing in their wake, or leaping out of the water and cackling along
    • Bottlenose dolphins can be found in cold-temperate waters, as well as tropical seas all over the world, and are very powerful swimmers. Their top swimming speed is around 23 miles per hour

Sea Turtles

Snorkeling with a green turtle in the Great Barrier Reef
Snorkeling with a green turtle in the Great Barrier Reef. Image: Tourism Queensland

There are 7 types of marine turtles in the world, and 6 of them can be found in the Great Barrier Reef! Sea turtles can be quite curious, and are known to swim up to snorkelers and divers. If you visit at the right time of year, you can see turtles nesting on the beach or watch the babies hatch and complete their daring dash to the ocean. In the Great Barrier Reef, you may see:

  • Green Turtles
  • Hawksbill Turtles
  • Leatherback Turtles
  • Loggerhead Turtles
  • Flatback Turtles
  • Olive Ridley Turtles

Are you ready to plan your trip to the Great Barrier Reef? Browse our Australia travel packages, or give us a call today at 888-229-0082 to handcraft your dream adventure!