The Northern Great Barrier Reef, which is the least damaged because it is protected from farm run-off, is in the grip of an “extreme” white-out in a 1000km-long stretch.
Townsville-based National Coral Bleaching Taskforce scientists said the bleaching affected 93 per cent of the 2300km-long reef.
However, tourist operators said the findings were “alarmist” and a threat to the $5 billion Reef tourism industry.
“We’ve never seen anything like this scale of bleaching before,” taskforce leader Terry Hughes said.
“In the northern section, it’s like 10 cyclones have come ashore all at once.”
Scientists have flown in a helicopter and a light plane in aerial surveys over 911 reefs and teams of divers have confirmed the severity and extent of the mass bleaching, which in parts is bigger than other events in 2002 and 1998.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies professor Andrew Baird said bleaching was extreme in the 1000km region north of Port Douglas.
“Tragically, this is the most remote part of the Reef,” Prof Baird said.
“Its remoteness has protected it from most human pressures, but not climate change.”
Modest bleaching is now reaching its peak in a 600km central band of the Reef, between Cairns and Mackay.
According to the scientists, reefs further south have escaped damaging levels of bleaching because of cooler water temperatures over summer under the cloudy conditions of former tropical cyclone Winston.
Cairns tourism identity Fred Ariel said the alarmist findings of scientists gave the impression the Reef was dead, dying and white.
“It’s not. It’s magnificent and in great health,” Mr Ariel said.
“What is bleached is part of the natural cycle. It’ll recover and grow back.”
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