Is this an abstract painting or a photograph of the Great Barrier Reef?
Is this an abstract painting or a photograph of the Great Barrier Reef? (Photo: JC Photo/Shutterstock)

Scuba diving in Australia's Great Barrier Reef tops the bucket list of many travelers, and considering the wealth of marine life that lives among these calcium carbonate colonies, it's easy to understand why.

Of course, donning a wetsuit and plunging beneath the water isn't the only way to experience the beauty of this natural wonder. You can also fly over it in a plane, helicopter or even a hot air balloon. You won't get the same up-close view of the coral's intricate details, but flying offers the opportunity to see just how massive the 133,000-square-mile reef system is. These photos will give you a hint of just how big that is.

Coral reef surrounding Green Island, near Cairns, North Queensland, Australia.
Coral reef surrounding Green Island, near Cairns, North Queensland, Australia. (Photo: AustralianCamera/Shutterstock)

In addition to providing a fresh visual perspective, flying over the Great Barrier Reef is also a surprisingly ecologically conscious alternative to scuba diving — a popular tourist activity that can contribute to the degradation of the reef, which is also pummeled by bleaching, storms and the influx of crown-of-thorns starfish.

It's ironic that about 70 percent of the reef's recent wetsuit-clad tourists have flocked there because they want to see it before it's gone. This new trend in traveling is referred to as "last chance tourism," according to a recent study in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism.

A boat floats along the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
A boat floats along the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. (Photo: tororo reaction/Shutterstock)

Exploring the GBR by plane isn't just for tourists. Aerial photography is a valuable, non-invasive way for scientists to evaluate the overall health of the reef.

In fact, scientists working for NASA's Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) are embarking on a two-month aerial study of the GBR in hopes of gaining insight into its condition.

"The mission will provide critical data and new models for analyzing reef ecosystems from a new perspective," reports Phys.org. "CORAL will generate a uniform data set for a large sample of reefs across the Pacific Ocean. Scientists can use these data to search for trends between coral reef condition and the natural and human-produced biological and environmental factors that affect reefs."

Gorgeous aerial view of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Gorgeous aerial view of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: ProDesign studio/Shutterstock)

It will take time for NASA to share its CORAL findings, but perhaps the project can change the reef's status as a "last chance" tourist destination.

A stunning aerial view of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
A stunning aerial view of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: tororo reaction/Shutterstock)

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.