Season 1, Episode 6

Cairns Aquarium

Host Benjamin Starr chats with the entrepreneurial Daniel Leipnik, Director and Co-founder of the Cairns Aquarium.

Daniel gives us a look at the behind the scenes operation of the world class Cairns Aquarium, including their key focus on education, conservation and rehabilitation of local wildlife, and how the whole venture began.

Hosts & Guests

Benjamin Starr

Daniel Leipnik

Read the transcript

Benjamin Starr: Welcome back, we’re driving our own adventure here today and we’re lucky enough to have a man who, well we just went on a tour of the Cairns Aquarium and you suddenly realise what entrepreneurialism’s all about. Daniel Liepnik is joining us in the studio. How are you?


Daniel Leipnik: I’m very well thanks.


Ben: I would have presumed, this is my background in working in governments and stuff that this was all owned by the Queensland government and they were so, passionate about keeping will this this wildlife alive to show people, but you’ll the visionary behind all this is your building!


Daniel: Yes, there’s actually two of us it’s my partner and myself. We really wanted to showcase the region’s most magnificent ecosystems and biodiversity, but also, connect people to nature which we feel there’s a lack of that at the moment. So, in total there are three levels and it’s on a four thousand square meter block of land. But between all three levels we’ve got seventy-eight hundred square meters of facility.


Ben: How long did it take to build this joint?


Daniel: So, the building part was actually almost the smaller part, it took just under two years. 


Ben: Right. 


Daniel: But there was actually five years of design and engineering work. So, four stages of very incredibly technical and detailed design and engineering works and then two years of actual construction. Some of the most exciting parts were when all of the different exhibits either arrived in or were created on site. And then we started filling them up with water and a essentially put in all of the life support systems which is a fancy name for all of the plants and equipment that processes all the water, and then turning everything on and seeing water move around everywhere, that was pretty, pretty amazing. As well as of course adding in all the livestock there is about sixteen thousand fish and aquatic creatures, so, that was a lot of truckloads of fish coming in.


Ben: Unbelievable! And so, you had to have a coordinated effort, you had to have a team of scientists I imagine and people that understand how all these things live?


Daniel: Correct we’ve got a full-time aquarist, marine biologists, fisheries acarologist, reptiles specials which are called herpetologist.


Ben: Yes.  


Daniel: So, yeah, a very large team of specialists, who are. 

Ben: It’s like an episode of Jurassic Park walking through the back there. We did we did see it, the little eggs in in specially designed fridges, and you know you don’t know what’s going to pop out of it. But it’s almost like you are a custodian to saving a lot of things here that I didn’t realise were on the extinction list.


Daniel: Correct the aquarium is in the main, it really is a public attraction so, people can come and see and interact with livestock, but we also, have a conservation component to our business as well as an education component. So, for us it’s very fundamental that people actually learn about the incredible wildlife that is in this region and some of the threats that they face as well.


Ben: Can I really? I ask you is global warming as bad as what people making it out or is it an overreaction? Is it the fact that the world goes through these changes, is that mother nature trying to re adjust to the seven million foreign people that don’t seem to respect the balance, there is an imbalance I get it?


Daniel: From everything that I’ve read, and I can see global warming caused by the effects of man is having actually devastating impact on the planet, but also, the number of people and what we need to consume both food and fresh water every day is having those impacts as well. So, it’s something that is both distressing to us but also, motivates us to want to have a facility like the Cairns Aquarium where we can actually connect people back to nature and make them recognise and appreciate just how important nature is and how amazing it is.


Ben: I mean you’re doing a job that government should be funding millions into I mean it’s in their interest to protect the Daintree forest, it’s in their interest to protect species that are now becoming extinct. We walk through your fabulous facility and you were telling us about these lizards that no longer are out in the wild because they they’re going to be killed off. Turtles that are passing away or becoming extinct because foxes were introduced. So, man has really done some terrible things, you mean you know like the foxes; are there wild cats that are also, affecting these things?


Daniel: Twenty million feral cats.


Ben: And why don’t we cull those? 


Daniel: There’s a lot that needs to be done, government is in the principal role all of needing to be doing more this work. There are programs, there’s not enough of them. Hopefully over the next few years we’ll see more and, and the different levels of government will wake up to the fact that they have an important responsibility in being stewards of the planet, that would be very nice to see.


Ben: So, people that come through your aquarium, what do you want them to see and what do you want them to learn? Do want them to become custodians of your world that you’ve created or is it broader than that?


Daniel: I think there’s a few of mission or aims that we have, one of them is for people to actually come in contact with the species of the region, so, they can kind of recognise just how beautiful it is. But then also, when they leave they will have left knowing more about them, knowing about  some of the threats these creatures face and then hopefully they’ll go back and also, start taking a bit of a look at how they live their lives, whether it’s waste to landfill, whether it’s amount of energy that’s consumed, the type of transport that we use and, and even that the food habits that we have maybe even getting off some of the meat and going for more vegetarian diets. But certainly, connecting to nature is the very first stage of learning about how amazing the planet is, and I think that that encourages more people to take a look at their impacts that they have individually.


Ben: We did an interview and Paronella Park sometime during this series with the man that invented that, you would have to say back in the 1930’s would have been classed as a complete crazy guy. I mean why on earth would you want to build something there and what was the point of it, but you could see this guy had of a vision and a passion. Entrepreneurialism seems to be very much alive and well up here and what’s interesting is the people that have the custodians who’ve taken over it are even probably more passionate about keeping it alive.


Daniel: Well there was actually a moment in time that that actually led to this whole project.  We were actually out on the reef, we went to one of the islands and we noticed of the time a lot of overseas tourists had arrived but many of them weren’t actually going in the water and so, we learned afterwards that there are a lot of foreign nationals either uncomfortable in the water or can’t swim. And some of them are even afraid of jelly fish or stinging creatures.


Ben: OK.


Daniel: And so, we we saw that there was a market opportunity to basically bring the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest creatures on land, so, people who weren’t comfortable in the water could actually see and experience these creatures in a land-based attraction.




Daniel:  These are automated and fully computerised water purification plants and equipment and what it does is it puts all of the five million litres of water on site through seven different types of mechanical and biological filtration every hour. So, a massive amount of filtration that goes on.   And that happens because we don’t have access to clean salt water on site. So, all of our systems that were developed have what’s called, it’s a closed cycle life support system and we basically regenerate all about fresh clean water ourselves onsite.


Ben: So, I imagine it’s more or less like dialysis for fish to keep them alive but if there was a power blackout I suppose you have a power back up to keep everything running.


Daniel: Yep that we thought about that as well.  We have got a five hundred fifty-kilowatt backup generator, so, the whole place with every single thing going can keep functioning in case of power outage.




Daniel: so, we have five different shark species here.  We’ve got a great reef shark which are those. Leopard sharks, Bamboo sharks, a bunch of reef sharks and white tip reef sharks.  There is a different species of trevally. There’s Australia’s largest bony fish on the reef which is the giant Queensland grouper and they will actually grow to three meters and weigh four hundred kilos.


Ben: You couldn’t even lift it!   


Daniel: I think one of the most wonderful moments for me is every single day we have people here that are either have cognitive challenges or all are physically challenged, and you know that can’t go out to the Great Barrier Reef or they can’t walk around the rainforest.


Ben: Sure. 


Daniel: Probably the most rewarding thing is knowing that we’ve created a facility that can be enjoyed by people of of all different types.


Ben: Education is that a big part of what you’re doing here as well?


Daniel: Yes, it is. We have approximately two thirds of all students of this region come to the aquarium each year, so, there is roughly about thirty-seven and a half thousand students.  We have about twenty-five thousand students a year.  There are groups every day and and that includes both the local students as well as international students.


Ben: Some mums and dads listening into this would be thinking now you know we’ve got to go to Cairns gonna go to Cairns, we want to see all these things. What should they see apart from the aquarium?   


Daniel: Apart from the aquarium. Well, we do see ourselves as a place where people can come to learn about the creatures of the Great Barrier Reef and the rain forest.


Ben: Sure


Daniel: So, we see us as a great starting point. But then of course Skyrail is an amazing way of seeing the rain forests from above the tree canopy.


Ben: Sure.


Daniel: And then of course going to the Daintree rainforest is a magical experience. It’s the oldest surviving rain forest in the world at about a hundred and ten million years.


Ben: Wow!


Daniel: And then seeing the Great Barrier Reef itself is a once in a lifetime experience. So, I think combining all of those different features you get a real feel for the amazingness of tropical North Queensland. 




Daniel: So, we have a rain forest zone and that’s because there is quite a large blur between what is typically a forest and a very wet or even submerged rain forests and you get to see those creatures in this particular zone. 


Ben: Its interesting how miniature everything is, it becomes smaller doesn’t it. I had a turtle like that as a kid.


Daniel: And you can actually go under, there is an underwater tunnel.


Ben: Oh really?


Daniel: So, the kids can kind of get a feel for what it’s like to be immersed in a river system.


Ben: And all these little critters need to have the logs and and all that stuff as protection.


Daniel: Correct yeah, they hide in amongst there and then raise their heads.


Ben: So, this is what? A rehabilitation centre?


Daniel: Yes, this is the first stage of our turtle rehabilitation centre. We plan on expanding and having several more tanks here where we can with rehabilitate sick and injured sea turtles. So, every year unfortunately about five thousand sea the turtles die from the effects of plastics or other manmade causes.


Ben: Yeah.

Daniel: And so, there is a vital need to actually provide a rehabilitation centres such as this.


Ben: Yes.


Daniel: And we essentially get calls from the public and we have a coordination and collaboration with Cairns Rehabilitation Centre. So, sick and injured turtles get brought in. We basically have them x-rayed, diagnosed to find out what’s wrong with them, and then set them on a path of rehabilitation primarily through providing a safe condition for them with good water quality.


Ben: Sure.


Daniel: And feeding them and looking out for them.


Ben: Now what would a turtle like this weigh? You couldn’t pick this up off the beach.


Daniel:  This turtle weighs about forty kilos.


Ben: My goodness!


Daniel: And when she’s healthy she’ll probably weigh around eighty kilos.


Ben: So, what was her condition when she came in, do you remember? 


Daniel: She was basically covered in barnacles which was a sign that she wasn’t doing well.  She had trouble swimming, so, they did some x-rays and was found that she had plastic bags in her stomach. 


Ben: Oh, my goodness! 


Daniel: And yeah essentially clogs them up, they can’t eat, they can’t excrete and that will eventually kill them.


Ben: So, she would have had to have an operation have the bags taken out of her mouth.



Daniel: Correct, she had the plastic bags taken out of a stomach and now she’s swimming again, she’s able to remain buoyant or sink, and she’s eating nicely.


Ben: Oh, the plastic bags weren’t letting her go down.


Daniel: Correct. 


Ben: Oh, my goodness!


Daniel: So, she will spend between six and nine months under care and then she will eventually go back out to sea as a healthy turtle.


Ben: Well I was horrified when we walked through and you showed us  that beautiful sea turtle  which was thirty five years old and she was so,  placid and lovely and then you explained to us why she was in your care and you suddenly … well I’ve never come face to face with a turtle like that, but you tell the story.


Daniel: We lose about five thousand sea turtles around Australia a year from the effects of man.


Ben: So, she couldn’t go down deep because the bags were like a life jacket pushing her back up all the time.


Daniel: Well basically she had stopped eating because her gut was full of plastic and so,. 


Ben: So, no nutrients.


Daniel: Correct and just start fading away. So, yeah certainly the impacts of plastic are a real major issue on ocean life.


Ben: Now I think the other thing that very quickly which is with touching on is – you’re a visionary right? And I love the whole word of entrepreneurialism, I think it’s a great term. But you know, what’s your advice to young people listening into this today – to this interview.  You know your life is, is your life and you’ve created this wonderful life for yourself and you’ve lived in other countries. What advice do you give to young kids that have a hope and a dream or even someone of our age that has a hope and a dream that might not have hit that dream yet that they think this is impossible, I can never do it.  


Daniel: It’s hard to answer in a few minutes. Yeah, I think in life it’s very important to surround yourself with other visionaries and other people that have been successful.  So, if you do have some plans of something significant that you want to do, make sure that the people around you   have either got experience in that field or have got the capability to support you. So, having a network of capable and qualified people will help you get somewhere faster. The other thing is you know have persistence and perseverance; good things don’t happen overnight they take time. This project was years in the making, and a lot of persistence and seven days a week working.


Ben: And a lot of heart ache!


Daniel: A lot of heartache, a lot of hard work, but a lot of rewards. So, you know, inspire yourself and connect yourself and you’ll have a much richer life for it.


Ben:  Fantastic! Well Daniel, thank you very much for your time, and of course if you’re listening to this podcast, which you are because I’m talking to you. Make sure you come to Cairns Aquarium CEO and founder Daniel will be here and you have a great time. You’ll learn so, much about the reef and the Daintree forest you’ll walk out a warrior wanting to save everything from the minute you walk out of this place. Thanks Daniel.

Daniel: Thank you very much.          

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