The Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef system on Earth, with more than 3,000 separate reefs and coral cays. It is also one of the most complex natural ecosystems, with 600 types of corals and thousands of animal species from tiny planktons to whales. Corals look like plants, but are in fact colonies of very small animals known as coral polyps—closely related to jellyfish. The color differences in the photo relate to different habitats for coral growth; that is, the habitats strongly relate to two sources of energy and nutrients.
An astronaut aboard the International Space Station used a powerful lens to photograph these three reefs in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on October 12, 2015. The photo area spans about 15 kilometers (10 miles) of the 2300-kilometer (1,700 mile) reef system. Reefs are easy to spot from space because the iridescent blues of shallow lagoons contrast sharply with the dark blues of deep water.
The Great Barrier Reef is now protected in a marine park. The three reefs captured here—part of the planning area for the Whitsunday group of islands, which are 900 kilometers (560 miles) north of Brisbane in Queensland—have different types of protected status. The reef at top left is a habitat protection zone, controlling potentially damaging activities such as trawling. The reef on the lower left is a conservation park, which has limited fishing. The reef at the center of the image is a marine national park, with no fishing or collecting.
Image Credit: NASA
Caption: M. Justin Wilkinson, Texas State U., Jacobs Contract at NASA-JSC
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