Where engineering meets art, Subsea

Born of offshore engineering, the Wonder Reef https://www.wonderreef.com.au/ literally came to life in the guise of Subcon Blue Solutions, large-scale sculptural artist Daniel Templeman and the City of Gold Coast, Australia. Matt Allen, Director, Subcon Blue Solutions, discussed the project with Marine Technology TV.


Matt Allen, director of Subcon Blue Solutions, is an industry figure who epitomizes the saying “I’ve got salt water in my veins”, buying his first boat at the age of 12 and literally on the ocean, personally and professionally, ever since.

“When I finished high school, I went to sea in the merchant navy, then I went to college and got a degree in naval architecture,” said Allen, who later started a career in oil and gas, working offshore, building platforms and installing structures on the seabed.

Eleven years ago, Allen founded Subcon Blue Solutions as a company capable of stabilizing pipelines and providing marine foundations in the offshore energy market, diversifying into coastal and port infrastructure as well as artificial reefs. It was this last element that made him and his company a natural for the Wonder Reef project, a $4 million budget project designed to improve diving and tourism activities off the coast of the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia.

“The Wonder Reef is a scuba diving destination two kilometers from the Gold Coast, inspired by local diving enthusiasts and the Gold Coast City Council to attract diving tourists to stay on the Gold Coast,” said Allen. The seeds for the project were planted in 2018 via an expression of interest to reef companies to come up with a solution.
Allen, drawing on his long experience in offshore engineering, collaborated with Daniel Templeman, a public art sculptor from Brisbane to create and deliver the Wonder Reef concept.
“The really unique thing about this reef is that it floats, so we really borrowed from our oil and gas background and basically built nine mid-depth buoys with sculptures fitted to each one.” Matt
Allen, Director, Subcon Blue Solutions
Image courtesy of Subcon Blue Solutions

Meet the marvelous reef

The Wonder Reef Project is a joint initiative of the City of Gold Coast and the Government of Queensland. Inspired by the concept of a hot air balloon rising into the sky, nine reef sculptures expand towards the surface, like bubbles of oxygen rising in the ocean. Wonder Reef was designed to attract and sustain a rich diversity of marine life and withstand cyclonic conditions while appearing light, buoyant and buoyant in the ocean. Over time, complex marine communities will take center stage, creating a “hanging garden” for divers to explore and admire.

The Wonder Reef literally blends engineering and artistry, with “nine structures in total, each about 20 meters tall,” Allen said. “And the really unique thing about this reef is that it floats, so we really borrowed from our oil and gas background and basically built nine mid-depth buoys with sculptures installed on each one.”

“During our innovation sessions, we spent about six weeks hitting brick walls in our thinking, as we originally thought of building a fixed structure stacked in the seabed, but the budget simply wouldn’t allow it. not,” Allen said. “Then one Friday afternoon, we thought, ‘How about we float it? and it all really flowed from there. The whole concept just fell into place.

A moored floating system was also chosen for this project because the Gold Coast’s other name is “a surfer’s paradise”, with “lots of waves, and it catches the tails of cyclones”. We are in a water depth of 30 meters (designed for a) 18.6 meter high wave – a 200 year event. It’s a really tough place (as far as survivability criteria goes).
The client wanted a reef suitable for a range of divers. The structures are therefore arranged at different levels, at 10m, 18m and 30m, to accommodate everyone from resorts to open water divers. One of the most difficult challenges of the project was to merge this art and engineering, as the client wanted the largest structure possible; while Allen and his team figured out the best way to meet the survivability criteria.

Designed to last 30 years, the structures are bare steel, but protected by anodes, with a regular inspection regime. Each floating sculpture is attached to a 75 ton base via a 65ml chain. The reef was installed in August 2021, but remained closed for six months to allow the ecosystem to become established.

Images courtesy of Subcon Blue Solutions/Wonder Reef

Finding the structures’ ultimate form was arguably one of the most difficult compromises for the project, merging Subcon’s engineering with Templeman’s artistic vision. “When we came up with the idea to float the reef, we were all engineers and we sketched out what we thought it might look like, and it really looked like it was designed by engineers,” said Allen said. “It was really ‘blocky’ and lacked inspiration. Daniel called us and asked if he could collaborate, and his works explore ideas around gravity. Many of his earth sculptures seem to defy gravity, and this gave him a great opportunity to explore this idea, because we literally defy gravity. And also, there’s this unique experience that you can provide because the people interacting with the sculptures are weightless when they do, and they can interact with the sculpture at 360 degrees.

Templeman began by taking inspiration from hot air balloons with this idea of ​​buoyancy and slender teardrop-shaped structures floating around. “The structure starts out pretty narrow and opens up at the top and gives an uplifting feel,” Allen said. “And it turned into a champagne flute design.”

Drawing on his decades of offshore and submarine experience, Allen admits that in summary, the project presented a unique challenge: the fusion of art and engineering.

“Dan is an artist and has an idea of ​​what aesthetics should be. We are structural engineers who design a reef to DNV design codes. There was this really interesting tension between those two because we had to learn to think like Dan thinks and appreciate where he came from. A few times he had to put his foot down and say, “Just go sort your engineering out and make it work” because we were trying to change the shape to match our model. »
The other big challenge was more akin to the projects that Allen and his team have traditionally worked on: getting the reef stable on the first day of installation. “One really neat thing about our design is that we were able to pick up the mid-depth buoy from the top with a hydraulic release shackle,” Allen said. “We already had the chain and the anchor pre-installed, and we just took them off the barge and put them straight into the water. And the reef was in the cyclone stage from the start.

The end result is an innovative and interesting underwater area that aims to attract divers from around the world for years to come. “We have a very nice fusion of art, science and engineering going on, but it was not without tensions.”