Despite 2 million people visiting the Great Barrier Reef, only a small portion, surprisingly, get among it – get wet, that is. Whether it's fear of irukandji or sharks (or both), the inability to swim, or just feeling out of their depth, many experience the reef at arm's length.
It was this realisation that was the impetus behind the opening of the ambitious new $54 million Cairns Aquarium – the first aquarium built in Australia for 18 years, and the only one of its kind in the world to concentrate solely on showcasing the bio-diversity of Far North Queensland's rainforest and marine life.
Entrepreneurs Daniel Leipnik and Andrew Preston, the duo behind the phenomenal aquarium, were on a trip to Green Island six years ago when they noticed how few tourists actually got in the water. "We were amazed by the colours and variety of fish and coral but couldn't help notice the vast number of people who, for one reason or another, did not go into the water or venture off the island, while others were left wanting to see more."
Offering a memorable experience, irrespective of whether visitors travelled to the reef or not, was the driving motivation behind the 7800-square-metre, three-level Cairns Aquarium and Reef Research Centre, which opened last September. Located in the heart of Cairns CBD, the aquarium took six years of exhaustive planning and collaborations spanning hundreds of people from dozens of specialist firms.
From the outside, the building itself makes an impressive, architectural statement. Exterior walls comprise a series of giant, 11.5-metre-high, "tectonic" plates symbolising the movement of the earth over time that has caused the region's mountain ranges to rise up along the coast, while sapphire-blue glass panels along the 90-metre length give people a glimpse of the living ecosystems inside. Inside, you could lose yourself for hours.
The aquarium houses a staggering 15,000 aquatic animals, fish, plants and other organisms within 71 live exhibits that have been curated with interpretative material and tours, providing visitors with a journey through life-like habitats. Julie Cullen, the aquarium's general manager, says visitors follow the story of a drop of rain through five geographical locations: the Wet Tropics, Cape York, Gulf Savanna, Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea.
The standout attraction is the Deep Reef exhibit, a 300,000-litre, 10-metre-high exhibit that gives a view of the stratified coral outcrops that range from the sunlight bathed shallows to the darker, lower depths of the drop off. On the upper level, reef fish swim through the exhibit, while deep foraging nocturnal fish can be observed in the lower levels; something previously only accessible to experienced deep water divers.
Other highlights include a 1.8 million-litre Oceanarium exhibit that is home to a school of scalloped hammerhead sharks and other large ocean predators, which we could see clearly as we walked through a 20-metre, underwater tunnel. The River Monsters exhibit houses the highly endangered freshwater sawfish, while the Tropical Rainforest zone features the region's rarest and most incredible snakes, lizards, and frogs along with spiders and insects that are some of the biggest and meanest rainforest giants alive. Dangers of the Reef features marine life potentially fatal to humans; stone fish, sea snakes, lionfish, jelly fish and a host of venomous or poisonous creatures. Visitors can even hold some creatures including blue sea stars, sea cucumbers, insects and lizards while under the watchful eye of a trained aquarist.
The opportunity for marine observation continues at the on-site Aqualuna, a contemporary Italian restaurant with a staggering 70,000-litre floor-to-ceiling "under the pier"-themed marine tank. While tucking into pasta and zucchini flowers, we watch mesmerised as a school of black tip reef sharks are bossed around by a hyperactive clown trigger fish the staff have appropriately named Kanye. Aqualuna is way more than a gimmick; both the food, drinks and staff are exceptional (order one of the next level gin and tonics, and book a seat by the tank).
We leave the aquarium encouraged. No matter your age, or ability to swim, now everyone can experience the reef in all its brilliance.
Sheriden Rhodes travelled as a guest of Accor Hotels and Resorts.
Cairns Aquarium is open from 9am-7pm seven days a week, 365 days a year. Admission costs $42 for an adult (15 years +); children (3-14 years) $28. Concession, family and yearly passes available. Behind the scenes tours an additional $10 per person. See cairnsaquarium.com.au
Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort is two minutes' walk from Cairns Aquarium and the Esplanade. The resort offers a lagoon swimming pool, poolside cafe and bar, tropical gardens, excellent on-site restaurant and school holiday activities. A "Fun in the Sun" package including overnight accommodation in a standard resort room and two adult aquarium passes (children's tickets available at retail price from the hotel) from $220. See accorhotels.com