On a stroll along Townsville's The Strand promenade, you can't miss the "Ocean Siren" rising from the shallow waters of the foreshore.
The four-metre-high sculpture is modelled on 12-year-old schoolgirl Takoda Johnson of the Wulgurukaba people, the traditional owners of the land. The statue is the forerunner to the amazing Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA), a 64-tonne Coral Greenhouse.
The birth of Australia's landmark MOUA - the first in the Southern Hemisphere - traces back to marine scientist Dr Adam Smith, who describes himself as a "thalassophile" - a lover of the ocean and sea.
"There's something about the ocean, the weightlessness, the beauty, the uncertainty and the discovery. It is so peaceful underwater - it is what Jacques Cousteau calls the 'silent world'," Smith tells Explore.
Smith was inspired by the legendary French explorer and his 1956 underwater documentary film, The Silent World.
Five years ago, when Smith was talking with a fellow marine biologist about Mexico's Underwater Museum of Art in Cancun, it spawned the idea for Townsville's MOUA.
Smith says an underwater museum "shows how art can help coral reefs, improve marine park management and increase tourism".
After years of consultation with scientists, tourism bodies, government officials and underwater artist Jason deCaires Taylor, the team got the go-ahead for the world-class MOUA on the Great Barrier Reef.
The museum aims to raise awareness of the climate-change challenges coral reefs face in North Queensland. It also hopes to show people the beauty and fragility of reefs.
In November 2019, the "Ocean Siren" was installed on the foreshore. Eight months later, MOUA was officially opened. The Coral Greenhouse is an enormous project with 60 separate facilities centred around 15 sculptures of humans working with coral. Each sculpture weighs between 300 and 600 kilograms and is fixed to the seabed, 16 metres below sea level.
"The ocean has taken over the underwater museum. We have been doing lots of coral planting and spawning, where local coral are planted on the sculptures like tree clippings. There's algae, grouper fish, invertebrates, cuttlefish swimming around the sculptures. It is surreal and awe-inspiring, almost like a cathedral - it's quite a spiritual experience."
You can only view the submerged site on a boat tour, which takes two hours from Townsville. Smith estimates 30,000-50,000 people will dive MOUA each year.
By the end of the year, two more installations are planned for Palm and Magnetic islands, in shallower water and accessible to snorkellers.
Smith, who is deputy chair of MOUA, worked for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for 20 years before starting his company, Reef Ecologic. He moved from Sydney to Townsville in 1999 to be part of the reef-community of divers and marine scientists.
"It's the best job in the world when you can combine your recreational passions with work," he says.
To discover more diving experiences, visit australia.com.
Getting there: Flights from Brisbane to Townsville depart daily; flight time is 2 hours.
Stay: There are a number of accommodation options, including The Ville Resort Casino (the-ville.com.au).
Explore more: Museum of Underwater Art; moua.com.au
The states' deep dives
There is some outstanding diving and snorkelling in New South Wales. On the Central Coast, about two kilometres off Avoca Beach, dive the artificial reef formed by the scuttled warship HMAS Adelaide. The wreck 32 metres below sea level is a popular dive spot.
Many of Darwin's more than 15 dive sites are shipwrecks or artificial reefs. The wreck of Song Saigon is popular, even among fishes, with schools of trevally, big groupers and even turtles congregating around the tanker.
In South Australia there are some fascinating diving trails. The four shipwrecks in the Gulf St Vincent - the Grecian, Zanoni, Star of Greece and Norma - form a trail stretching from off Ardrossan on the Yorke Peninsula to off Port Willunga on the Fleurieu Peninsula. You will need a permit from Heritage SA to explore Zanoni as it is a protected site.
Experienced divers head to the most intact shipwreck, the cargo ship SS Nord which sank in 1915. It is now blanketed with sea anemones and sponges, and the wreck's huge rudder and propeller are favourites with underwater photographers. You can still see the ship's brass fittings and Chinese crockery. It is located near a reef in 42 metres of water near Cape Pillar on the tip of the Tasman Peninsula.
The heads at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay in southern Victoria are home to some spectacular wall dives. They start at 12 metres and go beyond 90 metres. Dive the shipwreck of HMAS Canberra offshore from Ocean Grove in Bass Strait to explore the Australian Navy warship's flight decks, bridge, engine rooms and galley.
The coral gardens and untouched reefs off Western Australia attract scuba divers from all over the world. Near Dunsborough in the South West, the diver-friendly HMAS Swan was the first purposely prepared dive wreck of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Explore the bridge, galley and control-room. You'll swim with pike, blue devilfish and leatherjackets.
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