The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is classified into zones that permit certain activities and ban others. Scuba divers enjoy access to much of the park.

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Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

With the invention of scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) in 1943, traffic to the Great Barrier Reef grew. Add overfishing, limestone mining and oil drilling, and you understand why Australia designated it a marine park in 1975.

The federal government and the Queensland state government work together to manage the park's daunting 132,973 square miles (344,400 square kilometers). The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is in charge of protecting the reef.

Despite the fact that the park does not include the northernmost section of the reef, it is the largest marine protected area in the world [source: Great Barrier Reef: Review]. In addition to the reef itself, the park encompasses several other marine communities including mangroves, estuaries, sea-grass beds and deep ocean troughs.

When the marine park was created, officials divided it into particular zones that outlined what activities could or couldn't be carried out there. Zones ranged from general use zones, where fishing, swimming, boating and most other activities were permitted, to scientific research zones, which were off-limits to anyone other than the scientists involved. In light of global warming and reports of animal populations declining in the reef, the Australian government decided to review the marine park's setup.

The marine park is now classified into 70 distinct habitat types, and at least 20 percent of each habitat type is designated a "no-take" zone. "No-take," as its name suggests, means that nothing can be removed from the area, so activities like fishing and shell collecting are forbidden. Before the review, less than 5 percent of the park was protected by a no-take clause. Now, 33 percent of the park is protected in this way [source: Great Barrier Reef: Zoning]

Tourists aren't the only ones that flock to the marine park. Scientists find its relatively pristine reefs and abundant marine life ideal for research. For example, scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science even pinpointed the protective coating secreted by coral that is exposed to air and are working with a pharmaceutical company to use it to develop sunscreen [source: Sammon].

The myriad reefs and cays of the Great Barrier Reef would take a lifetime to explore, but that doesn't prevent people from trying. If you want to explore the reef a little more, follow the links on the following page.