With a third of the world's coral and more than 1,500 species of fish, Australia's Great Barrier Reef is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. So when Cairns-based Sunlover Cruises announced in February a plan to construct a freestanding pontoon on Moore Reef, 34 miles off the coast, environmentalists were outraged. Though a small pontoon for docking the company's boats has been on the reef since 1991, the new four-story Reef Eco Centre, at 53,820 square feet, would be five times as large and would include three guest rooms, a health spa, waterslides, an underwater Internet café, shops, and a wedding chapel. "Do we really want a theme park in the middle of the largest World Heritage Area on earth?" asks John Rainbird, coordinator for the Cairns & Far North Environment Centre.
Responding to the public outcry, Sunlover has since revised its proposal by moving the wedding chapel inside and adding a canopy designed to resemble that of the Sydney Opera House. Because final approval of the plan rests with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the government organization that manages the park, Sunlover has also had to address environmental concerns. "The new structure, like the current one, will be moored in sand, not coral," says Terry Russell, managing director of Sunlover Cruises. "Artificial lights will illuminate the coral up to seven hours a week, and we've created a state-of-the-art waste treatment facility." Rainbird, who is still opposed to the design, also worries about the precedent it will set: "An environmental treasure may soon become a contractor's playground."