The logistics involved in designing and creating the amazing Wonder Reef, the world’s first purpose-built floating reef on Australia’s Gold Coast, were extensive.

The Gold Coast of Australia is a magical place of breathtaking beaches, incredible rainforests, stunning waterfalls, fun-filled theme parks, and a growing culinary scene. And now, it has added an imaginative and unique underwater attraction for scuba divers, Wonder Reef.

Just 1.5 miles/2.5 kilometers off Australia’s Gold Coast, Wonder Reef, the world’s first purpose-built floating reef, is now open for divers to explore. The nine structures that comprise the reef rise 72 feet/22 meters from the floor of the South Pacific Ocean. The structures installed in 2021 are already home to tropical fish and fledgling coral colonies.

“It’s not just about the original art; the sculptures themselves are living and constantly evolving,” said Matthew Allen, founder of Subcon Blue Solutions, a team of global reef experts who have designed several successful underwater destinations. The reefs are designed to sway gently in the ocean like a giant kelp forest. Eventually, the installation will create a thriving reef ecosystem as it attracts and sustains a rich diversity of marine life. While it is already a bucket list dive site for both beginner and advanced recreational divers, it also provides marine research and educational opportunities. “The dive is unique. Wonder reef is a fusion of art, science, and engineering. Each sculpture is able to be explored with 360 degrees of freedom. There’s no dive site like it anywhere else in the world,” Allen said.

The reef was more than a decade in the making and involved extensive engagement with the local commercial and recreational dive industry, tourism industry, statutory authorities, marine scientists, boating and fishing organizations, marine rescue and the local cultural heritage body. The term engineering comes from two Latin words: Ingenium, which means “cleverness,” and ingeniare, which means “to devise.” Like some of the world’s greatest engineering feats — the building of the English Channel Tunnel, the Hoover Dam and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge — the Wonder Reef project required tackling many engineering challenges.

Behind the Design

Subcon Blue Solutions collaborated on the design with mega-scale sculptural artist Daniel Templeman and the City of Gold Coast and received specialist input from around the world. The $5 million project was funded by the City of Gold Coast and the Queensland Government. The various stakeholders contributed not only design and artistic elements but also marine science and engineering knowledge. Subcon Blue Solutions spent 15 months undertaking complex technical analysis and producing detailed designs.

It all began with brainstorming ideas. One of the requirements was that the installation had to be able to withstand the potential for a massive cyclonic wave, which is 60 feet/18.5 meters. “That was a key consideration when designing it,” Allen said. “And we thought, ‘what if we make it float?’ And the whole concept of Wonder Reef really flowed from that one idea — what if we make it float.”

The nine sculptures start at the seabed with a 75Te foundation reef which provides a habitat designed for massive cod and groupers to call home. Then a huge chain tether restrains an 8-meter-tall buoyant “flute,” which soars into the water column, providing habitat for small reef fishes and pelagics, not to mention the curious passing whales! Marine scientists from Reef Ecologic and Seaworld have been cultivating corals on the flutes and foundations as part of an experiment to help corals impacted by climate change. The ecological aspects of the design seem to be working brilliantly — over 100 fish species have been identified in the reef’s first 12 months!

The entire reef is 65 feet/20 meters tall. “The clever thing about our design is that the reef actually lays almost flat, as if it was a giant kelp forest, so the wave can roll over the top,” Allen said. “Then the reef flutes all stand back up again.”

“On diveable days, when the swell is under 4 feet/1.5 meters, you can’t actually perceive them moving at all,” said Templeman, “but the movement is what oxygenates the algae and provides nutrients to the corals, which in turn attracts sea life to feed from them, so the sculptures become symbiotic with the ocean.”

The Artistic Vision

Templeman was tasked with creating the sculptural elements. “I thought, ‘how can I create something that exaggerates that sense of buoyancy and be something that divers can explore and want to swim through and around, as well as provide the environment for sea life to grow?’’ explained Templeman. “I proposed a conical shape of rings that rest one on top of each other and get larger toward the surface.”

Though Wonder Reef has been designed to withstand cyclonic conditions, the structures are light and buoyant. Templeman and the Subcon team were Inspired by the concept of hot air balloons rising in the sky. Templeman says the flutes are created in a way that exaggerates the phenomenon of buoyancy, with the flutes getting larger at their tops, near the water’s surface, much like a diver’s exhaled bubbles expand as they ascend in the water

The outcome is an underwater installation that reflects the Gold Coast’s natural beauty and helps raise the profile of the region as a premier dive destination. “It’s the coming together of so many disciplines and different ideas in one project,” Templeman said. “It’s a really big step forward for what’s possible for artists and what’s possible in the ocean.”

What’s in a Name?

Naming the attraction also was a process. During the design and production process, the project’s working name was Wonder Reef. Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate used social media to involve the local community in giving the reef its permanent name. Garden of Eden Dive, Atlantis Downunder, Underwater Cosmos, and The Treasures were some of the popular contenders, but “after receiving more than 200 responses from the community, we ultimately agreed with the name that external consultants had come up with — Wonder Reef,’’ said Tate. “I believe we have found the perfect fit.”

A Reflection of the Gold Coast

The city has incredible natural assets with 70 kilometers (43 miles) of picturesque coastline and a mix of natural and artificial reefs, including the Scottish Prince shipwreck, just one kilometer (half-mile) away. The project was inspired by the area’s natural beauty, and its unusual buoyant design is reflective of the Gold Coast’s unique personality and uplifting spirit. It also was designed to complement and diversify the region’s dive offering. Though he’s designed a number of large-scale, site-specific works of art, Wonder Reef is Templeman’s first underwater creation. “They are nine beacons of hope and optimism,” he said.

Regular dive tours are operated by Gold Coast Dive Adventures and the Queensland Scuba Diving Company.

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