Reef HQ in Townsville is the world’s largest living coral reef showcasing the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef in a 2.5 million litre aquarium. Reef HQ was built as a Bicentennial Commemorative project and opened in Townsville in 1987. As the National Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Reef HQ also plays an important role in education of the biology and care of the reef.
The Coral Reef Exhibit at ReefHQ is the world’s largest coral reef aquarium. The aquarium is open to the elements allowing the thousands of reef organisms housed in the aquarium to receive natural day and moonlight and experience rain and storms like natural reefs do. The coral reef exhibit has over 100 fish species and around 130 types of coral, along with hundreds of species of marine invertebrates such as sea stars, sea-cucumbers , sea-urchins, brittle stars, sponges and worms. You can book a specialist behind the scenes tour to find out about how they maintain a coral reef on this scale – there is a lot of technology to control water quality – protein skimmers, sand filters, chiller systems, wave machines, water circulators, reverse osmosis salinity control and more.
The Predator Exhibit is a 0.75 million litre tank housing sharks, se turtles, stingrays and large predatory fish such as Giant Trevally and Maori Wrasse. The exhibit features a replica of the bow of the SS Yongala, a Queensland passenger and freight steamer that sank during a cyclone in 1911 with the loss of 121 lives. (The actual wreck of Yongala is a world famous dive site in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park south east of Townsville.
The Underwater Discovery Tunnel passes through both the Predator Exhibit and the Coral Reef Exhibit giving visitors a close up look at the wonderful diversity of marine life.
Around the main tanks are a number of other display areas or “zones” that introduce you to various aspects of the reef and its inhabitants.
- Reef Zone: a good place to start your visit, with information about the Great Barrier Reef, explaining the different habitats and ecosystems including coral reefs, seagrasses, mangroves, sponge gardens and muddy seabeds. There area number of displays including Clownfish and Mangroves.
- Water Zone: this area features some of the creatures from the intertidal zone of rocks, rock pools and reef areas that are exposed at low tide and underwater at high tide. Animals from the intertidal zone have evolved ways to cope with being above water for part of each day, and avoid being washed away by waves. You can also learn about impact of tides, rivers, cyclones and waves on the reef.
- Light Zone: here you discover why light is important to the living reef and how animals use their colours to their advantage. Many reef animals are brightly coloured and use colour for different purposes such as attracting a mate, warning predators, camouflage. The displays here highlight the spectacular variety of colours such as the beautiful butterflyfish and other marine .
- Night Zone: introduces you to some of the nocturnal animals. Some marine organisms emit light (bioluminescence). Bioluminescent animals range from microscopic bacteria to larger animals such as fish and squid. You will see some amazing luminescent creatures in the Night Zone and some strange creatures that live in the gloomy ocean depths.
- Food Zone: introduces you to the variety of methods reef creatures use to obtain food. Some fish are herbivores and eat only algae, other feed on live coral polyps, omnivores eat both animal and plant matter, and the carnivores feed on other animals from tiny plankton to large fish and animals. Displays show you what eats what, and gives you a close up view of some of these vegetarians and carnivores.
- Hot Tropics: the Venomous Creatures exhibit displays some of Australia’s dangerous creatures such as sea snakes, stonefish and lionfish at the. The Hot Topics area also introduces some of the natural and human induced issues that are impacting the Great Barrier Reef.
Reef HQ guides and volunteers conduct regular tours throughout the day. You can chat to a diver under water as they dive with the sharks in the Predator Exhibit at 11am each day. Presentations during the day include The Coral Tour, Predator Dive Show, Dangerous Creatures Tour, Shark Feeding, Turtle Tour.
The Second Floor has interactive displays with various hands-on exhibits and virtual tours. There is a lift to the top floor from where you can enjoy pleasant city views.
Reef HQ Aquarium is building a facility for sick and injured marine turtles opening in 2009. The new hospital will provide short term and long term care for turtles, and will provide visitors with an opportunity to see and learn about marine turtles, through guided tours and educational talks.
Reef HQ is located at 2-68 Flinders Street East, next to the Museum of Tropical Queensland, a short walk from the centre of Townsville. Reef HQ is open from 9.30am to 5pm every day of the year except Christmas Day. Admission allows you to visit the aquarium all day, and also return later the same day.