Take a deep dive into the magnificent Wonder Reef, the world’s first purpose-built floating reef on the Gold Coast.
Travel 2.5 kilometres offshore from the Gold Coast’s Main Beach, and it seems like there is nothing but sparkling blue ocean stretching all the way to the horizon. Underwater, however, it’s a different story.
Rising 22 metres from the sea floor, nine underwater sculptures sway to and fro like a giant kelp forest. These beautiful and otherwordly structures, coated with green algae and surrounded by darting fish, are truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
This is Wonder Reef, the world’s first purpose-built floating reef, now open for certified divers to explore. An innovative fusion of art, science and engineering, this $5 million dive attraction was jointly funded by the City of Gold Coast and the Queensland Government. It is the outcome of a long-held vision to diversify the city’s tourism offering and raise the profile of the region as a premier dive destination.
As well as being an innovative and exciting addition to the Gold Coast dive trail, it has also created an amazing new habitat for the area’s spectacular and unique marine life. But how did a project like this get off the ground – and into the water?
Art meets science
The first inklings of Wonder Reef emerged back in 2010, when investigations and consultation into establishing a world-class dive attraction began.
Queensland artist Daniel Templeman is responsible for designing the reef’s most notable feature, the nine sculptural ‘flutes’. He had previously designed public site-specific works, but this was his first underwater creation. Collaborating with reef specialist engineering company Subcon Blue Solutions on technical analysis and detailed design, Wonder Reef was brought to life.
The flutes were inspired by the concept of a hot-air balloon rising, and the sense of perspective you get when they are silhouetted at different distances in the sky. The reef sculptures twist, becoming larger towards the surface, like oxygen bubbles rising in the ocean. “I tried to make something that exaggerated that sense of buoyancy, something that pointed upwards to the sky,” Daniel says.
While each flute appears light and buoyant in the water, they weigh more than 738 tonnes on dry land. Matt Allen from Subcon says one of the biggest challenges was constructing the reef to be able to survive potential damaging cyclonic waves of over 18 metres.
Other challenges during construction included the sheer size of the sculptures and the complexity of the conical reef shapes. They were built to Australian standards for pressure vessels, meaning the welds and testing requirements were of the highest quality.
As the dive site is very exposed, engineers also had to wait for perfect weather to finally install the reef. Given the sculpture’s immense weight, Australia’s largest floating crane was used. The flutes were then individually tethered 30 metres down on the seafloor by reinforced concrete and steel pyramids, or ‘gravity anchors’, each weighing over 72 tonnes and clocking in at the height of a bus.
Wonder Reef is an extraordinary and interdisciplinary feat of engineering. As Daniel says, “this reef will capture the imagination and attention of not only divers but art lovers, architects, engineers, eco-tourists and marine conservationists across the globe.”
Magical marine life
As it matures, Wonder Reef will also create more than 32,000 cubic metres of new reef habitat, food and shelter. It was specifically designed to attract and sustain a rich diversity of marine life. The structures are made from uncoated steel to maximise growth, while the use of environmentally friendly geopolymer concrete also helped to minimise Wonder Reef’s carbon footprint.
Already the reef has become home to hundreds of different marine species. First to arrive were algae, crustaceans and barnacles, shortly followed by lobsters, octopus, tropical fish, turtles and giant groupers.
Coral was planted at the site in late 2021 by Townsville-based coral reef experts Reef Ecologic, in collaboration with Subcon Blue Solutions and Sea World. These
“It will raise awareness about coral techniques and methods,” says Nathan Cook, a senior marine scientist from Reef Ecologic. “This reef is for aesthetics and experience but also has value from a restoration experience, as we are trialling coral planting methods that could be used in restoring other reefs.”
Nathan hopes that by fostering a greater appreciation of our marine life and the natural environment, Wonder Reef will also bring a greater awareness to marine conservation. The reef itself will allow for fantastic opportunities for citizen science and research partnerships between government, science, education and tourism industries to flourish.
Golden ticket for tourism
The Gold Coast is a popular year-round diving destination. The water temperatures are ideal, sitting between 18 and 26 degrees, and there are 11 dive sites to explore, ranging from shipwrecks to cliff faces to rocky reefs – and now the world’s first buoyant reef.
Wonder Reef has set the bar high for new ecotourism experiences in Australia. Certified divers can dive to depths of 8, 18 and 30 metres, depending on their level of experience. It is expected to attract more than 16,000 diving enthusiasts annually and inject more than $30 million into the economy over the next 10 years.
Queensland Environment and Great Barrier Reef Minister Meaghan Scanlon says the project is a great addition to the area’s long list of attractions. “The coast is renowned for its natural beauty and fun attractions. This project will combine these two perfectly,” she says.
Tourism Minister Stirling Hinchliffe also adds that Wonder Reef will play an important role in the region’s tourism industry.
“The Gold Coast is world renowned for its idyllic beaches, and soon we’ll be able to showcase a unique diving experience under the waves with Wonder Reef joining other nearby dive sites in the region,” he says.
Regular dive tours will be operated by Gold Coast Dive Adventures and the Queensland Scuba Diving Company, and experienced divers with their own boat and dive equipment are able to book a public mooring.
It is just the beginning for Wonder Reef, but we can look forward to a rich and ever-evolving experience of this magnificent underwater world: one that benefits divers, scientists and marine habitats in need of protection.
For amazing whale watching experiences on the Gold Coast, check out this article.