"One of the most worrying aspects is that the ship is still moving on the reef to the action of the seas, which is doing further damage," said the general manager of Marine Safety Queensland Patrick Quirk.
Salvage experts have boarded the Chinese-registered carrier, which is loaded with 65,000 tonnes of coal and about 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, stranded some 70 kilometres east of the resort destination Great Keppel Island.
One tug boat is already at the scene to stabilise the vessel and another will arrive later Monday, while aircraft are being being used to monitor the spill in waters teeming with marine life.
"The hope is that little oil escaped through the night," Quirk said.The vessel hit Douglas Shoal, which is at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and some 15 kilometres outside the nearest shipping channel, at full speed and authorities said the damage is serious.
Quirk said the initial report was that the ship's main engine room had been breached, the major engine damaged and the rudder seriously impacted.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said salvage teams were on board and assessing how they might be able to refloat the carrier.
"This is going to be a very specialist and delicate operation," she told the Nine Network.
"If this ship was to break further apart, if there was another very significant oil spill, then we would not only see tonnes of oil into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park but modelling shows it is likely to come up onto the beaches of Shoalwater Bay, which is a national park area."
Bligh said the vessel was in a restricted zone of the Great Barrier Reef which was "totally off limits" to shipping and the ship's Chinese owners could be fined up to one million dollars (around 920,000 US) and the captain handed a 250,000 dollar penalty.