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Inside the Great Barrier Reef’s brand new aquarium

The tropical city of Cairns has just unveiled a very cool, world-class aquarium.

By Georgia Rickard
Published: 27 September, 2017

You don’t have to get wet to go underwater at the Great Barrier Reef! This month, the brand new Cairns Aquarium has opened, giving you a new opportunity to see many of the rare, unusual, oddly coloured and, in some cases, even deadly inhabitants of this underwater icon without having to slip on a scuba tank. That’s not all: this is the only place on Earth where two World Heritage-listed biospheres – the Great Barrier Reef and the World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics area (famous for its stunning Daintree rainforest) – converge, and the new aquarium has exhibits showing off the fish, animals, plants and habitats of both. 

Look, there’s Nemo!

Cairns Aquarium, Cairns, Queensland

Searching for Nemo? You might spot him here. Among the aquarium’s astonishing sights is a special deep-reef exhibit – one of only three in existence. Until now, the only way to see Nemo’s home was to hop on a boat and take the overnight journey to the steep drop-off from Australia’s continental shelf at the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. The aquarium’s specially designed, 10-metre-deep (33-foot) tank makes it possible to learn about this special place in a memorable, interactive new way. That’s not the only uniquely educational experience on offer: over the centre’s three floors and 7500 square metres (80,700 square feet), you’ll experience 10 special ecosystems and 71 different habitats. Follow the path of a raindrop from the mountaintop rainforests of the Tropical North Queensland area through the creeks and streams of the World Heritage-listed Daintree rainforest into the Coral Sea, where Great Barrier Reef is located. As you walk through the exhibits you’ll see some of the rarest animals in the world and get up close and personal with some of the spookiest creatures under the sea.

Sleeping with the sharks

Cairns Aquarium, Cairns, Queensland

If you like sharks, you’ll love the aquarium’s “Oceanarium”, which features a transparent viewing room five metres (16 feet) under water. Step inside to see some of the ocean’s most majestic sharks from 360 degrees – including grey reef sharks, leopard sharks and a school of scalloped hammerhead sharks – as well as porcupine stingrays, leopard stingrays, humphead Maori wrasse and many types of schooling fish. Also worth checking out is the 400,000 litre (105,660 gallon) “River Monsters” exhibit, which houses giant strange-looking creatures such as the highly endangered freshwater sawfish (one of the planet’s largest fish) and the largest freshwater ray in the world, the freshwater whiptail stingray.

More star attractions

Cairns Aquarium, Cairns, Queensland

Cairns Aquarium also features other thrilling sights such as “Dangers of the Reef”: an area featuring some of the deadliest marine life known to humankind, including stonefish, sea snakes, lionfish and poisonous jellyfish. But not all exhibits feature the sea’s dangers. Little ones will enjoy touching – and sometimes even holding – the aquarium’s gentlest attractions such as blue sea stars, insects and lizards. (Don’t miss touching the super-slimy sea cucumbers.) And if that sound of all that is making you feel like you need to take a seat, you can. Head to on-site restaurant Aqualuna to dine on modern Australian-Italian cuisine while enjoying views through an enormous window of an adjacent shark exhibit called “Under the Pier”. Later this year, the aquarium will also launch Shark Sleepovers, where you’ll nod off surrounded by the Oceanarium’s panoramic underwater views – and of course the finned predators.

Saving Nemo

Cairns Aquarium, Cairns, Queensland

Importantly, Cairns Aquarium isn’t just a place to get up close and personal with local marine life: it’s a place to help save it, too. The centre has a dedicated research and development department and you can join one of the many talks by university trained staff – conducted daily in each of the four major amphitheatres – to learn more about conservation measures in place to preserve local ecosystems and their inhabitants. Visitors can also take a back-of-house tour to learn about the inner workings of the aquarium or tour the on-site turtle rehabilitation centre, which is slated to launch its own breeding program in future. You can even book an upgraded pass to enjoy a personal tour with a dedicated guide if you’re a true aquarium aficionado. There really are so many ways to gain an in-depth perspective here in this special part of the world.

If you want to see some cuddlier creatures, take a look at Australia Zoo's new baby koala.