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great barrier reef aerial 2.jpg.990x0 q80 crop smart 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.

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. (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 "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. (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. (Photo: tororo reaction/Shutterstock)
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