Cairns Aquarium – From Rainforest To Reef

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On a beautiful sunny day in the Cairns Aquarium, I am surrounded by crystal clear water. Rays of light reflect off the body of a large hammerhead shark as it swims above me, while, in close pursuit is a black tip reef shark, followed by a cow tail ray and a rare porcupine ray.

Smaller fish retreat into the shadows so as not to become their next meal but they have nothing to fear as these large ocean predators are well fed.

I am standing in the Oceanarium, a 20m long tunnel with a 270-degree view of the Deep Reef and Coral Sea exhibits at the new world-class Cairns Aquarium.

The Cairns Aquarium is undoubtedly one of the top things to do in Cairns and one of the best places to visit in Queensland if you want to learn about the Great Barrier Reef. 

Cairns Aquarium 

cairns aquarium
Cairns Aquarium delights: Left: Reef drop off zone, Frog exhibit, Under the Pier at Aqualuna Restaurant, giant burrowing cockroach

Cairns is one of the fastest growing tourism destinations in Queensland and a popular destination when exploring on a Queensland road trip.

After six long years in the planning, on 18th Sept 2017, Cairns opened the only aquarium in the world to feature the incredible biodiversity of two adjoining World Heritage protected areas: the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics Rainforest.

Sited in the very heart of Cairns City, it’s the only aquarium in the world to feature species local to its own area.

With over 15,000 plants, animals and fish, it leads visitors through an exciting, immersive experience of all the habitats of the Wet Tropics.

Cairns Aquarium displays: Left top: Red claw, Pufferfish, Large cow tailed ray, Giant blue crab, Boyd’s forest dragon

Showcasing Local Tropical Biodiversity

Enjoy and experience 10 North Queensland ecosystems and 71 habitats with some of the rarest and most elusive animals on earth, from rivers and creeks, through the rainforest, to billabongs and mangroves spilling into the reef and finally the Coral Sea.

Experiences include rare and unique Queensland wildlife, with some unusual, most colourful and sometimes deadly creatures in our world.

The pathway of discovery begins in the 400,000L River Monsters exhibit, housing the Gulf Savannah’s endangered sawfish and other weird freshwater species.

The Tropical Rainforest features Queensland frogs, insects and reptiles of the forest.

Enjoy the terrestrial Touch & Talk tank where you can hold a giant burrowing cockroach (I know you will only save what you know and love, but, this is gross!) or a blue-tongued lizard.

Interactive Touch and Talk tank at Cairns Aquarium
Cairns Aquarium Interactive Touch and Talk tank

Life In The Mangroves hosts more odd and unique creatures including baby crocodiles, sharks and rays.

Dangers Of The Reef highlights venomous or poisonous marine life.

But the more user-friendly Touch & Talk tank allows personal interaction with sea cucumbers, sea stars and other less-nasty sea life.

The Deep Reef Amphitheatre is only one of three in the world and the first in Australia.

It is a 10m high by 8.5 m wide exhibit re-creating a reef-drop off zone, only experienced by scuba divers in far offshore waters.

As the majority of tourists rarely even step into our beautiful Queensland waters, let alone swim, snorkel or dive, this exhibit brings the reef ‘home’.

And it is supported by this Queensland aquarium’s piece de resistance, a 1.8 million litre Oceanarium.

Ocean predatory fish such as hammerheads, sharks, rays and giant trevally call this barrier reef aquarium home.

The tunnel connects with an awe-inspiring 360-degree, 5m-deep viewing room where up close and personal experiences are amazing.

The whole interactive experience at this Great Barrier Reef aquarium includes regular talks and feeding sessions, with behind the scenes tours available as well as Shark Sleepovers in the Oceanarium.

For a real experience in the forest, experienced hikers may want to attempt hiking Mount Bartle Frere

Great Barrier Reef Aquarium Education

Not only is it a world-class attraction, but it also houses a much needed Great Barrier Reef Research Centre.

Working alongside schools, James Cook University and industry partners, it will conduct Education Programs and vital research and development to explore renewable clean energy technologies to benefit our marine, tropical and equatorial environment.

Scalloped hammerhead shark at Cairns Aquarium
Scalloped hammerhead shark at Cairns Aquarium

Q&A With A Marine Expert   

I visit the Cairns Aquarium with Tony Isaacson (DiveCareDare) and recent winner of the 2017 Healthy Land & Water Individual Lifetime Achievement and People’s Choice Awards.

With a lifelong passion for marine conservation and education, Tony has seen many of the world’s aquaria. Here are his thoughts.

How did you rate the Cairns Aquarium?

Well, the theme of going from a rain cloud, through a forest community, along creeks, billabongs, estuaries and out to the coral reef and open ocean beyond Osprey Reef and the Coral Sea is a concept that other aquariums have dealt with in the past.

I have to say the Cairns Aquarium has learned from world’s best practice and have put a terrific thematic aquarium together.

The biodiversity is huge, the number of animals they have for people to experience the freshwater, rainforest, estuaries and the reef to open ocean is world class.

Red claw
Red claw

Was there any one stand out moment?

That’s a tough question as I had so many stand-out moments. 

It’s not every aquarium that showcases hammerheads or the top of a seamount.

Not everyone can show the diversity of freshwater and estuary fish and coral fish to the extent that this aquarium has.

I think the one stand-out would be the overall diversity shown here, and the very genuine effort to fairly represent the enormity and the world status of the Great Barrier Reef, from the Southern Great Barrier Reef all the way up to the north. 

From a laypersons view and Tony’s as an expert in the field, the Cairns Aquarium is a must visit.

Whilst the interactive tour is said to take 2.5 hours, we spent the whole day there and didn’t see everything.

It certainly is an exciting new attraction for Queensland and the people of Cairns should be very proud of the facilities it offers.

Don’t leave before sampling tasty bites at the Aqualuna Restaurant.

The food is exquisite and beautifully prepared, and to be enjoyed whilst uniquely viewing the Under The Pier shark exhibit or with a rainforest vista from the Daintree Deck.

Finally a souvenir or two beckons from the Tropical Treasures Gift Store.

So come and immerse yourself – its open 365 days a year!


If you’re visiting Tropical North Queensland, also check out these attractions:

Cairns Aqarium