11 Apr 2019


What better way to celebrate World Heritage Day than a salute to Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Have you ever wondered what lurks beneath the waves of our Reef? This magical ecosystem is not only renowned for its picturesque seascape, but also for its exceptional marine wildlife, from large sea creatures like whales and sharks, to the tiny but iconic clownfish. But there are other beauties to be found here, denizens of the deep that don’t always get the attention they deserve.

So strap on your dive mask! It’s time to immerse yourself in the extraordinary underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef.


With a beautiful fluked tail and voluptuous body, it's not hard to see how dugongs inspired the mermaid myths. One of the largest populations of these air-breathing marine mammals can be found in the northern Great Barrier Reef, with around 6,500 individuals calling this place home. 

Dugong facing camera
Dugong facing camera © Shutterstock / vkilikov / WWF

Dugong habitat

Did you know that dugongs are also called ‘sea cows’? No, not because they moo. Dugongs (Dugong dugon) have a mostly herbivorous diet and can be found grazing on large amounts of seagrass in shallow coastal waters. Their constant grazing of the grass keeps it healthy and helps it grow.

Oval seagrass (Halophila ovalis) dugong food
Oval seagrass (Halophila ovalis) dugong food © Jürgen Freund / WWF

Snubfin dolphins

You’d be lucky to find these round-headed and beakless dolphins swimming playfully in groups along the northern coast of Australia. The elusive Australian snubfin dolphins (Orcaella heinsohni) live in small, localised populations and are highly vulnerable to coastal port developments. Add the pressure of accidental bycatch from commercial fishing, and this could spell a dire future for these Aussie dolphins.

Snubfin dolphin spitting
Snubfin dolphin spitting © Dr Deb Thiele / WWF-Aus


Turtles are highly vulnerable and defenceless against fishing net entanglement. With more than 99% of new green sea turtle hatchlings in Queensland’s north turning female due to increased temperatures, protecting this species from rapid decline is vital.

A close up of green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
A close up of green turtle (Chelonia mydas) © Shutterstock / Rich Carey / WWF-Sweden

Sea snakes

Flat, paddle-like tails enable these reptiles to glide through warm and shallow tropical waters. It’s no wonder they’ve made a home in the waters of sunny Queensland! Sea snakes (Hydrophiinae) need to surface for air regularly, so getting entangled in fishing nets can threaten the lives of these spectacular serpents.

Olive sea snake, Lighthouse Bommie, Great Barrier Reef
Olive sea snake, Lighthouse Bommie, Great Barrier Reef © Mike Ball Dive Expeditions / WWF-Aus


With a unique mallet-shaped head and wide-set eyes, hammerhead sharks are extremely vigilant when scanning their ocean homes for food. Often misunderstood, these apex predators play an important role in maintaining the natural balance of the ocean ecosystem, which is why it can be tragic when they are lost to commercial fishing activities.

Shoal of scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini)
Shoal of scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini) © naturepl.com / Doug Perrine / WWF


The sawfish has seen a drastic decline over recent decades, and northern Australia’s waters are home to one of the last remaining strongholds. Unfortunately, their large size and unique saw-like rostrum make them extremely vulnerable to getting caught and trapped in fishing nets.

Sawfish (Pristidae) underwater with close up detail of mouth and saw
Sawfish (Pristidae) underwater with close up detail of mouth and saw © Shutterstock / Andrea Izzotti / WWF