This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners and AirPano, now available on Google Arts & Culture
But Australia also contains tropical rain forests, snow-covered mountains, and the irreplaceable Great Barrier Reef. Its animals, shaped by millions of years of isolation, are found nowhere else on Earth.
Take a tour of a few famous landmarks near the coasts of the eastern states of Australia.
Downtown Sydney and the Opera House
Sydney is Australia’s oldest and largest city. With its mild climate, clean streets, parks, and vibrant art scene, it is considered one of the most liveable cities in the world. Its neighborhoods line the complex coastline of Port Jackson, the world’s largest natural harbor.
Sydney embodies much of the history of Europeans in Australia, from its first settlement to its contemporary hip culture.
South of Sydney lies Botany Bay, where Captain James Cook became the first European to reach Australia in 1770. When the first British settlers followed in 1788, they found Botany Bay soil unsuitable, and came north to Sydney Harbor.
Sydney Cove and Circular Quay
The first settlers landed at Sydney Cove and built a wharf on their ideal natural harbor. Circular Quay remained a central point throughout Sydney’s history. Passenger ferries still dock there alongside waterfront walkways and shopping and tourist attractions.
This neighborhood is the oldest European settlement in Australia, with buildings dating from the early 1800s. Syndey has preserved its historic character, and today the narrow streets, 19th century buildings, and closeness to the harbor make it ideal for visitors.
The Royal Botanic Garden
During Australia’s colonial period, British rulers were both homesick for English landscapes and fascinated by native flora and fauna. The Royal Botanic Gardens, established in 1816, satisfied both needs by collecting Australia’s unusual native plants in a parklike setting.
Central Business District
This collection of skyscrapers forms Sydney’s central business district, or CBD. The towers reflect Sydney’s role as the largest, wealthiest, and most business-minded city in Australia. New developments have replaced many older buildings, but some historic structures remain.
Sydney Opera House
Sydney’s crown jewel is its opera house, completed in 1973. Multiple performance spaces are sheltered by roofs that evoke both seashells and sails in Sydney Harbor. The plaza surrounding the opera house is also a gathering place for locals.
Sydney Harbor and the Harbor Bridge
Sydney Harbor, more properly called Port Jackson, defines the city. Hidden inlets, stunning water views, sailing, swimming beaches, and waterfront parks highlight Sydney’s neighborhoods.
Port Jackson is a ria, or a river valley that is filled with seawater, giving it a complex, branching shape. Its sheltered bays provide harbors for freight, passenger, and recreational boats, and its warm waters contribute to Australia’s outdoorsy, beach-loving culture.
Sydney Harbor Bridge
This hulking steel bridge complements the grand scale and contrasts with the natural sweep of the harbor. Completed in 1932, the bridge is both a backdrop and a viewpoint for the city. Daring visitors can even climb to the top!
This historic amusement park opened in the 1930s and has entertained generations of Australian children. Its “clown gate” is a city icon, and residents have supported it through numerous closings, repairs, and remodels.
North Sydney is often considered the wealthiest and most glamorous neighborhood in Australia. It is home to yacht clubs and waterfront mansions. It is generally more residential and quiet than the main part of the city across the harbor.
Sydney Theater Company
Sydney Theater Company on the wharf is one of many examples of how Sydney’s waterfront has transformed industrial areas into cultural attractions. While Australia still has profitable industries, its cities are often more known for their vibrant culture.
The Great Ocean Road
One of Australia’s most valuable resources is its astonishing coastline. Running for tens of thousands of kilometers, it includes famous surf beaches, mangrove forests, the Great Barrier Reef, and the stunning cliffs, caves, and sea stacks you see here.
This is the view from the Great Ocean Road, a 231-kilometer drive along some of Australia’s most dramatic coastlines. Though the waters are dangerous, they are rich with marine life, in dramatic contrast to the barren lands above.
Loch Ard Gorge
This rock formation is named for a ship that wrecked near here in 1878, leaving only two survivors. Nearby rocks are named “Tom” and “Eva” in their honor. Powerful wave action carves these sandstone cliffs and caves.
To the west, just out of view, are the most famous formations of this strange coast. The Twelve Apostles, named after the biblical figures, are a series of tall stacks. Sea erosion constantly changes their shape and number.
Australia is a world leader in preserving marine areas. Several state and federal parks, reserves, and sanctuaries protect this area’s nutrient-rich waters and abundant marine life. Other national parks protect the land.
Great Ocean Road
The Great Ocean Road is an enormous tourist attraction, despite crossing some barren landscapes. It also passes quaint surf towns, eucalyptus forests, and idyllic beaches. The Great Ocean Walk, a parallel backpacking trail, beckons visitors who want even more adventure.
Great Barrier Reef: Hardy and Hook Reefs
The Great Barrier Reef is simply astounding. It is the largest structure formed by living things, and is easily seen from space. It was built over millions of years by billions of tiny anemone-like animals called coral polyps.
Each polyp builds a hard calcium-carbonate shell from minerals dissolved in the water. Over time, countless shells build up to form mazes of reefs, giving shelter to tens of thousands of other species. The reef is a treasure, but an endangered one.
Warm, Shallow Waters
The Coral Sea is ideal for coral polyps. Its waters are warm and shallow, allowing for plenty of sunlight. Sunlight feeds photosynthetic organisms that live inside the polyps’ bodies in a mutually beneficial relationship.
The reef has thousands of “micro-habitats,” or different areas that support different kinds of life. These shallow, sandy inner reefs support small fish and invertebrates. Thousands of nooks and crannies provide places to hide and reproduce.
The cliff-like outer reefs form tall walls in open water. They support larger deep-water fish and animals. Different species make their homes at different depths along the cliff face. Sea turtles, sharks, and marine mammals visit from the open sea.
Waves constantly wear down reefs into soft white sand. In the shallow water, the sand piles up into sandbars or even islands. These shallow mazes are treacherous for ships. Captain Cook ran aground and almost got lost here in 1770.
Great Barrier Reef: Low Islands
The Great Barrier Reef contains many islands. Some, like the large Whitsunday Islands, are rock masses, but most are coral cays. Coral cays form when coral and calcium-carbonate sand build up until they break the surface.
Plant species on cays play an important role in reef ecosystems. Their roots stop erosion, while organic debris provides rare nutrients. Cays act as breeding grounds for sea birds and sea turtles. Islands are also the focus of human activity—and human threats.
Tourism and Development
Low Island, a coral cay, is a commercial tourist attraction. Tour companies bring day visitors to snorkel, dive, and swim. Private boats dock overnight. A research station is the only permanent habitation.
Rules and Regulations
Strict rules govern where boats can anchor and where people can swim and walk. Fishing or collecting is strictly prohibited. Coral can easily be broken, trampled, and crushed. With thousands of visitors per year, every footprint counts.
Threats to the Reef
The coral faces many dangers. Pollution, invasive species, overfishing, and overuse have killed many coral. Climate change causes several threats. Warmer waters overheat the coral; rising sea levels block sunlight; and dissolved carbon dioxide breaks down calcium shells.
A Protective Barrier
Coral reefs don’t just protect animals. The barrier reef and its islands protect the Australian coast from wave erosion and especially from tropical cyclones.