A new tourist pontoon on the Great Barrier Reef offers far more than sunbeds and soft-drinks. Forty-five kilometres from Cairns, on Moore reef, the Reef Magic pontoon is solar and wind-powered; it has a working scientific laboratory and accommodation for scientists. Launched in April 2022, the pontoon signifies the new thinking in the region: the need to promote climate science education and an understanding of the environmental dangers faced by one of the world’s best-known miracles of nature.
John O’Sullivan is the chief executive officer of Experience Co, which owns six businesses on the Reef, including the Reef Magic pontoon. He says climate change and sustainability are major issues for every reef operator in far north Queensland. “We have taken a view of leaning into the issues around the science and sustainability issues of the Great Barrier Reef,” he adds.
O’Sullivan was managing director of Tourism Australia for five years, from 2014 to 2019, and he notes that one of the major travel trends that emerged during his time at the agency was the concept of ‘travel for purpose’.
“A lot of people now don’t just travel to fly and flop by a pool, they actually want to give back to the communities they’re going to, or they want to understand the communities, so they travel for a purpose,” he says, adding that visitors, particularly younger visitors, increasingly want to understand the ecology and science of the Reef.
The Reef Magic pontoon was established with three aims: to tell the indigenous se-country story of the Great Barrier Reef with a dedicated indigenous on-water experience; to foster reef science with a working lab as well as partnering with charities to rebuild reefs that have been damaged by cyclone or climate change; and to remain sustainable with a renewable-energy battery.
Even so, the Experience Co reef boat that transports visitors to the new pontoon is diesel-powered, O’Sullivan says, adding that retrofitting the reef boat fleet to use electric batteries or renewable fuel such as green hydrogen is a mammoth and expensive exercise and the necessary expertise has yet to be fully developed.
“All of us, as an industry, are starting to look at the technology,” O’Sullivan says, adding that although there had been encouraging trials of ferries powered by renewable energy in Auckland, the technology hadn’t yet progressed as far as getting a vessel 45 kilometres off-shore through the open sea, battling potentially big swells, strong currents and strong winds.
He says there has to be a wide-ranging conversation between the government, which manages the ports and the refuelling facilities, and the whole of the reef boat industry to foster the wholesale transition to sustainably-powered reef boats.
Like Experience Co, many commercial reef operators now run marine science departments, O’Sullivan says, and as a group they are acutely aware of the importance of reef health and the move to sustainability.
The direct financial link between a thriving and beautiful Reef and the financial bottom line, he adds, is probably more powerful than even the toughest regulations. “It’s people’s livelihoods, it’s the jobs of our staff, it’s the reputation of our businesses that’s affected by this issue”.