Project Management Institute

Ocean View

Not Everyone Can Dive into Australia's Great Barrier Reef; an Aquarium Project Team Delivered the Next Best Thing



Climate change is destroying parts of Australia's Great Barrier Reef—the largest reef system in the world. While other initiatives are trying to preserve that natural wonder, a new aquarium on the country's northern coast was built for those who've never explored the reef.

The Cairns Aquarium was completed in September, driven by co-founders and co-directors Daniel Leipnik and Andrew Preston. When they visited the Great Barrier Reef during a 2011 vacation, they noticed that many tourists in Cairns, which is considered the gateway city to the reef, just stayed on the beach. Building the aquarium would make it easier for those tourists—or others hesitant to go underwater—to understand the reef's beauty and significance.

“We wanted to present people with the opportunity to experience and interact with the creatures and habitats from the Great Barrier Reef and the adjacent Wet Tropics Rainforest, so they could have a greater appreciation of the natural world around us,” says Mr. Leipnik, CEO, Cairns Aquarium, Cairns, Australia. “We wanted to encapsulate the region's ecotourism experiences in one facility.”

But completing the AU$54 million, six-year project within budget and on schedule became a deep dive for Mr. Leipnik, Mr. Preston and Andrew Hearn, COO and project manager, Cairns Aquarium. They had to push the project team to meet strict requirements to secure the 7,800-square-meter (83,959-square-foot) aquarium's 15,000 animals, fish, plants and other organisms. The team also had to manage materials and exhibit suppliers from multiple countries—all while meeting frequent deadlines during each phase.


“We wanted to encapsulate the region's ecotourism experiences in one facility.”

—Daniel Leipnik, Cairns Aquarium, Cairns, Australia



Selling the Idea

Securing the funding to launch—and complete—the project required Mr. Leipnik and Mr. Preston to build a strong business case. The 300-page business plan was the result of conducting formal market research and working with consultants from the Australian Institute for Commercialisation and PwC. By the end of 2011, they gathered enough information to conclude that the aquarium would attract 720,000 visitors a year—which helped justify the project and attract funding.

While the team completed the aquarium's design and obtained all approvals and permits by 2014, it wasn't until the following year that Mr. Leipnik and Mr. Preston locked in all of the project's funding. It included a AU$32 million loan from the Australian investment firm FIIG Securities and private equity firm M.H. Carnegie & Co., as well as funding from local, state and federal government agencies.


Species Selection

The project team knew the fish and other sea creatures would be the stars of the show. So Mr. Leipnik's team first created a document listing the species it wanted to display. Then it collaborated closely with the local organization that would source the creatures, Cairns Marine, to refine all requirements.

The species had to be easy to find, interact well with other animals in captivity and have a successful track record of living in other major aquariums. Finalizing the roster of species required flexibility.

“We couldn't just give them a shopping list and get what we wanted,” Mr. Leipnik says.

For instance, while his team wanted a school of diagonal-banded sweetlips fish, which are ubiquitous in imagery of the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns Marine informed it that the clever fish is too difficult to catch.

Deep Dive

2011: The Cairns Aquarium project launches.

2012: Business case and economic feasibility studies completed

2013: City land purchased

2014: The project team compiles list of aquatic life to showcase; design and engineering plans completed.

2015: Final project financing secured and primary construction begins

2016: The team orders the exhibit structures and water-filtration systems from international suppliers.

September 2017: The aquarium opens.




Andrew Hearn, COO and project manager, Cairns Aquarium

Location: Cairns, Australia

Experience: 13 years

Other notable projects:

img Greater Cleveland Aquarium in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, which opened in 2012. Mr. Hearn served as project manager.

img Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo renovation, which was completed in 2015. Mr. Hearn served as owner's representative.

Career lessons learned: “With any long-lead-time items critical to a project's successful and timely completion, it's important to allocate additional contingency time frames. Also, thoroughly check all suppliers' references and history of successfully delivering outcomes before awarding contracts.”

Sync and Swim

The timing of the arrival of fish and aquatic organisms at the project site was a sensitive matter. If they arrived too soon, the team would have to spend more funds and resources to hold and feed them. If they arrived too late, the creatures would not have time to adjust to their new surroundings. Cairns Marine helped the team identify the more difficult-to-catch fish that needed to be sourced earlier and the more readily available species that could be sourced closer to opening day.

All of the water—including the 1.8 million liters (475,510 gallons) for the aquarium's largest exhibit, the Oceanarium—had to be in place five weeks before opening so that the right amount of water-purifying bacteria could grow. Half of the water was sourced from the sea, but the aquarium also needed to create its own saltwater for backup supply. So the project team ordered 60 tons of Red Sea salt from a supplier in Israel.

To ensure optimal arrival times for all animals and supplies, Mr. Hearn set up a Gantt chart and worked backward from the end date, building in a contingency of two months. “We set everything up with our suppliers so that they were in a holding position and ready to go when we pulled the trigger,” he says.

Remote Control

With 71 exhibits representing 10 North Queensland ecosystems, the aquarium covered a lot of ground. The project's wide scope sent the team across borders to source some materials and to find contractors. For instance, a manufacturer in China built many of the exhibits, a U.S. organization delivered the water purification and filtration system, and an organization in Europe provided the exhibits' acrylic panels.

“There are a handful of organizations worldwide that can provide specialist aquarium supplies and exhibits, and most have limited production capabilities and extremely long lead times,” Mr. Hearn says.

To mitigate risks, the team sent an inspector to each supplier for a pre-delivery assessment. The travel and resources cost for the inspections was part of the original project plan and budget. Before shipping, suppliers made any necessary adjustments—with estimates for additional costs already included in the budget.

For instance, one inspector found that the crocodile exhibit needed more dry land. So the supplier redesigned and rebuilt the exhibit to provide the crocodiles a larger area above the water. Without the inspection, the problem would have been discovered after delivery—leading to a delay and a cost increase.


Cairns Aquarium's crocodile exhibit

Creature Comforts

Climate control was a serious challenge for the aquarium team to ensure both the people and the sea creatures would be comfortable.

The team was worried about how much of Cairns' tropical hot air would seep into the building when visitors entered and exited. And it knew the aquarium would be covered by at least eight hours of direct sun each day.


So the team sourced corrugated white metal that reflects about 90 percent of the sun's rays to cover the building's exterior. Inside, the aquarium spent AU$600,000 for LED lights and installation. While LED lights cost about three times as much as traditional lighting, they generate less heat.

“We focused on selecting devices, equipment and technology to reduce energy and water consumption.”

—Daniel Leipnik

“We focused on selecting devices, equipment and technology to reduce energy consumption and water consumption,” Mr. Leipnik says. “And we chose external materials to mitigate heat buildup within the building so we could reduce the energy cost to operate air conditioning.” PM

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