A new world of wonder on the Gold Coast

By Helen Hayes 29 June 2022
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While the Gold Coast is known for its many aquatic activities, a new experience takes you below the surface to see what lies beneath.

Above the surface, surfers seek, and find, some of the best surf breaks in Australia, that are home to legends like Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning. Swimmers are just as happy, whether they seek to body surf or to laze in more protected waters. Now, there is a new world of wonder for another group of activity seekers in Australia’s favourite holiday destination – certified divers.

Wonder Reef is a brilliant innovation. It is the world’s first buoyant reef and is located just 2.5km offshore from Philip Park at The Spit. That is just a 10-minute boat ride away from the Gold Coast Seaway, meaning divers can choose to do some of the other activities that the Gold Coast offers before or after exploring this unique underwater habitat.

Creating the Wonder Reef

So, what is Wonder Reef exactly? It is a blossoming underwater world that has been designed to attract a rich variety of marine life while offering a thrilling experience for certified divers of all levels. Opened in June 2022, Wonder Reef is a combination of science, engineering and art, and consists of nine enormous, sculptured reefs that float nearly 22m above the sea floor. The reef sculptures almost emulate a giant kelp forest, cleverly designed to lay almost flat with the dance of the waves that move with the tides, the wind and the swell coursing far above. Once the wave has passed overhead, the ‘kelp’ flutes stand back up again. These flutes are a feat of engineering, built to withstand wave heights of over 18m.

This world-first is part of a long-time vision to create a more diverse tourism offering as well as boosting the Gold Coast’s profile as a premier dive destination. Wonder Reef is an inspired collaboration between the City of Gold Coast, global reef experts Subcon Blue Solutions, sculptural artist Daniel Templeman and jointly funded by the Queensland Government. Matthew Allen, director and co-founder of Subcon, told AG: “We had the original idea of making Wonder Reef float beneath the surface. Then Dan Templeman joined our team and gave the reef its stunning form. There’s a lot of engineering and planning that goes into a reef design to make it stable in a cyclone, ensure it is safe for divers and to integrate it sustainably into the environment”, Matthew said.

The technology is impressive. The reef is made from uncoated steel which helps maximise marine growth. The steel structures are protected from corrosion with between eight and 10 aluminium anodes attached to each reef. Each anode weighs 150kg. The foundations of the reef, weighing more than 72t, anchor the reef structures to the seabed.

This video provides a glimpse into the mechanics and design:

A new world emerges

Wonder Reef is not just about entertaining certified divers off the skyscraper-clad shoreline of the Gold Coast. It was purposely designed to attract – and sustain – a variety of marine life. The environmental benefits of Wonder Reef are huge, thanks to the addition of 32,000cu.m of new reef habitat in a previously barren seabed. Reefs play an important role in the ocean, providing habitat, shelter and food for fish to thrive and mature on. With the ocean under increasing pressure, declining fish stocks and coral reefs under threat, artificial reefs definitely have an important role to play.

Coral and sea creatures are all at home around Wonder Reef. Matthew Allen is surprised by how the marine life is adapting already. “It always fascinates me how our ecosystems evolve.  Every reef we (Subcon) have built has developed in its own unique way. It normally takes three years for a reef to settle into its rhythm and Wonder Reef is already hosting over 100 fish species! Wonder Reef has blown us away with how fast the marine flora has established and how complex it is. We think its location in the East Australia Current (EAC) means it is fed with a wide variety of biota looking for a place to call home.”

And if keen fishermen were thinking of casting a line around Wonder Reef? Forget it. Fishing is absolutely not allowed in the waters around the reef.

Mask up to explore Wonder Reef

While Wonder Reef is a new attraction for certified divers on the Gold Coast, it is not the only reason the Gold Coast is a wonderful place to pop on your SCUBA gear and explore beneath the surface. The Gold Coast is a popular year-round diving destination thanks to mild water temperatures between 18 and 26 degrees – and 11 dive sites including the latest addition, Wonder Reef, the world’s first buoyant reef. There are a dozen close reefs, as well as cliff faces and rocky reefs home to hard and soft corals. Schools of grey nurse sharks can be found in the deep, protected waters, and there are shipwrecks to dive including the Scottish Prince, along with what is left of its whisky bottles. Stingrays, turtles and nudis are just some of the marine creatures divers can enjoy on the Gold Coast.

Certified divers can dive to a depth of 8, 18 and 30m at Wonder Reef, depending on their level of experience, and be mesmerised by the artistic, sculpted reefs and the amount of marine life that has already discovered this new underwater habitat. There are also six types of coral propagating around Wonder Reef, planted in late 2021. The range of fish life recruited to the reef is unique because of the way the reef flutes intersect the water column.  Matthew explained: “We have found massive reef fishes, including cod and grouper living in the caves we provided down the bottom at 30m. Higher up, there are lots of colourful reef fishes as well as pelagic fish like mackerel.”

As for the dive, it is a vertical drop dive, with divers able to pause at the different depths and even take a photo on the underwater landing platform. Photos and footage taken on regular dives will also show how the marine habitat evolves over time, with a ‘hanging garden’ effect being created as more marine life moves in. With such beauty waiting under the surface, make sure to check those camera batteries before you head down.

The best way to experience Wonder Reef is on a dive tour with Gold Coast Dive Adventures or Queensland Scuba Diving. Experienced divers with their own boat and dive equipment can obtain a permit to book a public mooring at Wonder Reef. People who have always wanted to learn to dive should look no further than the Gold Coast. Queensland Scuba Diving handles all PADI diving certifications with aplomb, from absolute beginners to instructor level.

Matthew Allen says: “Most divers say they can’t wait to return to Wonder Reef. I can’t wait to return either. Being able to explore 360 degrees around the sculptures is a unique experience.”

There is no doubt that Wonder Reef has further stamped the Gold Coast on the map as a premier dive destination, that all certified divers should experience. Discover more about Wonder Reef here.

Gold Coast Dive Trail

There are 11 dive sites on the trail, located between South Stradbroke Island and just south of Snapper Rocks.

  1. Wonder Reef
  2. Wreck of the Aquarian
  3. Wave Break Island
  4. Gold Coast Seaway – The Spit
  5. Wreck of the Scottish Prince
  6. Mermaid Reef
  7. Palm Beach Reef
  8. Kirra Reef
  9. Snapper Rocks
  10. Cook Island
  11. 9 Mile Reef

Take a virtual tour through WonderReef here:

This article is brought to you by Destination Gold Coast.