The history of the Great Barrier Reef is limited to what we humans know after we inhabited the continent. But the process of coral building, where a new coral reef would erect on a dead one, has been going on for a few million years, which lead to the structure of the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is an ancient nature’s creation ranging millions and millions of years back. It consists of thousands of species of animal life both above and below the sea. Living coral has built themselves on dead coral, resulting in great walls of reefs where various organisms such algae, anemones, sponges, fish, worms, starfish, turtles, molluscs, snakes, crustaceans and plants sustain.
Although there is no proof of human contact with the Great Barrier Reef, the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islander residents, the original Australian citizens, have been known to travel to and fro the reefs for fishing, hunting, and other activities for about 40,000 years.
Additional information about Australia became available when the European ships first touched the land of Australia. There have been written accounts of the Great Barrier Reefs by those who saw it.
It is now an accepted fact that the Portuguese first sighted Australia in 1522, which Cristovao de Mendonca fronted. But the earliest documentary pieces of evidence are by the French settlers who lead their ships La Boudeuse and L’Etoile on 6th June 1768.
The exciting part of the discovery of the Great Barrier Reef was when James Cook and his team sailed the whole length of the reef from May to August 1770. When the ship struck Endeavour Reef, north of Cape Tribulation, and they were forced to repair their ship for six weeks, they could observe the Great Barrier Reef. But Cook and his team could not explore the reef, and scientists could only know that the reef was of great length and size.
After repairing the ship, Cook tried to make a way in the sea through the Lizard Island. When he and his botanist Joseph Banks climbed the island’s highest point, they could see the passage in the reef, through which their ship made way. It is known as the ‘Cook’s passage’.
After Cook, William Bligh was the following navigator to charter into the reef when travelling to West Indies. In those days, he sailed through the Torres Strait in 1792.
After a colony was established in Sydney in 1788, maintaining contact with Asia was possible only through the passage of the reef. Small vessels, ships travelled to Australia for future permanent settlements and economic development.
It was between 1801 and 1803 that Matthew Flinders commenced investigating the Australian coastline for safe passages via ships. It was then he experienced what he called walking on the ‘Extensive Barrier Reefs’. The safe passage that he established is still known as Flinder’s passage.
With present-day discoveries, it has been found that unearthing of the Great Barrier Reef can be traced much before if we believe the 30 shipwreck sites located in the reefs.