Aquarium opens reef experience to more people than ever before

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Howard Salkow

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One of the many luxuries of living in Tropical Far North Queensland is the lure of the world’s largest coral reef and the Wet Tropics rainforest which continues to attract millions of tourists to the region.


Promoters of the Great Barrier Reef have endless statistics which they are not shy to share with you. The Reef welcomes two million visitors annually; it supports 64,000 jobs; contributes $6.4 billion to the Australian economy and has a $56 billion economic, social and icon asset value.

Visitors to the Reef can enjoy many experiences including snorkelling, scuba diving, aircraft or helicopter tours, bare boats (self-sail), glass-bottomed boat-viewing, semi-submersibles and educational trips, cruise ship tours, whale watching and swimming with dolphins.

English broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough sums it up best: “It is one of the greatest, and most splendid natural treasures that the world possesses."

But coming face-to-face with these fascinating and amazing animals in their natural habitat is something not everyone is able to achieve – however, there is a spectacular alternative in the Cairns Aquarium which showcases the unique animals and habitats endemic to Tropical North Queensland.

The facility, which took six-and-a-half years from concept to opening, takes you on a journey from the freshwater river systems, through the Wet Tropics rainforest, across the mangroves to the depths of the Great Barrier Reef where you learn about this fragile eco system.

But you have to wonder why a facility of this magnitude, which cost in excess of $50 million, was developed. 


Says CEO and co-founder Daniel Leipnik: “The idea was borne out of a trip to the reef where we saw many people who were unable or uncomfortable swimming.

“We wanted visitors to the region to have an immersive and educational experience of the creatures of the Great Barrier Reef as a stand-alone encounter or as an enhancement to their reef experience.”

The 7,500 square metre aquarium with its modern and contemporary design which houses more than 16,000 creatures across 71 habitats is testament to this and is the only aquarium in the world dedicated exclusively to the habitats and species of Tropical North Queensland.

The co-founders Leipnik and Andrew Preston also had a niche in the market which was readily endorsed by Council which insured a smooth development process.

“Cairns Regional Council was incredibly supportive of the investment and attraction and allocated a development team to work with us through the legislative requirements.

“The CBD vacant land was zoned tourism and residential so this helped fast track the development processes,” said Leipnik.

Leipnik said funding for the project came from family financing, private investment and bank financing.
Listening to Leipnik unravel the aquarium’s numerous intricacies, you have to ask if he has spent the better part of his life immersed in marine biology. Far from it.

“Both Andrew and I are business executives. We have a 25-year career each in executive management, finance, and business development across multiple industries: advanced manufacturing, building and construction, TV and film, and transport and logistics,” he says.


Yet as he conducts this 90-minute tour, and as we absorb this absolute wonder, the data seems second nature to him.

“This is housed in five million litres of water; there are 16,000 creatures; 71 live exhibits; construction took two years and 41/2 years for the design and engineering; more than 600,000 people have visited since we opened two years ago; there is 109km of plumbing and piping; 58km of electrical data; a total of 120 staff and Alfresco dining in Dundee’s offers stunning aquarium views.”

This is just a smattering of what to absorb.

The aquarium allows you to come face-to-face with over 16,000 animals, see live coral displays, diver shark feeds, marine and reptile touch tanks and enjoy informative, ecologist talks.

Discover 71 different habitats showcasing the stunning diversity of the species found in the rainforest and the reef, some of which are rarely seen in the wild.

Stand inches from sharks and stingrays, giant endangered sawfish, turtles, pythons and a kaleidoscope of tropical fish in the largest oceanarium in Queensland and the breathtaking view of the only 10-metre tall, 300,000 litre Deep Reef Tank, which features 1,000 fish (78 species).

The educational, research and job-opportunity aspect to the aquarium is equally important and it continues to service an industry where there is a dearth of marine biology positions.

“The Aquarium’s research arm conducts vital research and biotechnology development, as well as partners with the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre which assists with the treatment of sick and injured turtles.

“It is shattering when it is revealed that 5,000 turtles die each year, with the consumption of plastic the main culprit. If we can get to the turtle in time and relieve them of the plastic, we can nurse them back to full health,” says Leipnik.

For Leipnik and his team, each day is a fresh adventure and as he says, you simply cannot tire of what is on offer in this living, breathing, vibrant space. 


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