Daniel Kimberley’s mission is simple and matter of fact. “I want to share the wonder and beauty of the coral reef with the world so it can be enjoyed, understood and valued,” he said. “Probably 99 per cent of the world’s population don’t scuba dive or snorkel and if people don’t experience something and they don’t value it, it won’t be protected.”
Daniel and his wife, Brooke own Monsoon Aquatics, a multi-award winning business which collects live fish, harvests and propagates corals, and cultures giant clams to supply to aquariums and marine parks around the world. They’re also trialling captive breeding methods for coral, which they hope will enable Monsoon Aquatics to contribute to reef restoration efforts in the future.
“The easiest way for most people to gain an appreciation of the coral reef is through aquariums, whether they be at a public tourist attraction or in your living room,” Daniel said. “My very first memories are mucking around in my father’s aquarium store in Sydney; picking up starfish and feeding the axolotl. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with the water. It’s part of me. I’m a firm believer that salt water and salt air are good for your body.”
As a teenager, Daniel worked at Sydney Aquarium, feeding sharks. “I got my skippers ticket and I was running their boats to collect stock for the aquariums,” Daniel said. “I was working at Manly Ocean World when I met Brooke down the snow. We’d only been dating six months when I accepted a job at the Territory Wildlife Park in Darwin.”
Brooke said Daniel asked if she was keen for an adventure. “He was the only guy driving around Manly in a Landcruiser ute with a kelpie on the back,” the former dietitian said. “Next thing we had a business and two boys,” she laughed.
Daniel conceded he “never suited Sydney”. While living in Darwin and working in the aquaculture section at Charles Darwin University, Daniel completed his studies in environmental science and aquaculture. “I’m always trying to set up a fish tank somewhere, so I set one up in the university foyer. A fella came in off the street saying he had a licence to collect corals and stuff, so we started chatting and I realised there was an opportunity to lease licences in the Northern Territory.”
Under their highset house in the tropics, Daniel “decided to give it a go”. “That was 12 years ago,” he said. “I was doing it all myself in a little run around boat, but I realised if I wanted the business to go anywhere, I couldn’t do everything. The biggest step was bringing in Tim, our Darwin skipper and shareholder. That freed me up from needing to be at sea. The business took off because I had time to work on it, rather than in it.”
He said he had to make a decision early on about whether he wanted to be the technician or the CEO. “On the surface, the business was growing well, but it was growing at an unsustainable rate – we couldn’t keep up with the pace,” Daniel said. “That’s when Brooke came onboard to manage all the admin side of the business. I’m not a details person and I handed her a big mess. We have complimentary skills. We call what I do the ‘fuzzy front end’ of shiny things, intangible thoughts and big ideas, and Brooke runs the ‘speedy back end’ and makes it all happen,” Daniel laughed.
Four years ago, Monsoon Aquatics started a second facility in Cairns. About a year ago Daniel and Brooke established a third facility at the Port of Bundaberg, relocating their family and head office. “I wanted a lifestyle change; somewhere I could swim in the ocean without crocodiles and box jelly fish,” Daniel said. “We did a road trip from Brisbane to Cairns. Initially we thought we’d like to live on the Sunshine Coast, but it just wasn’t us. When we hit Bundy, it just felt like home. Bundaberg is a big country town like Darwin.”
When they started researching the reef and waterfront facilities around the Southern Great Barrier Reef, Bundaberg made complete business sense too. “Strategically, we could access areas of the reef that are different to Cairns and Darwin, so across our three sites we now offer the largest range of live coral in Australia,” Daniel said. “A lot of the coral species we harvest around Bundaberg are high value and unique to Australia.”
Daniel said he and his team were careful to leave the reef in much the same condition they found it in. “We harvest the coral by hand, two divers at a time on 150 metre lines,” he said. “There are often thousands of coral in each spot and we’ll come up with 10 or 20 that fit our bill. They have to be the right species, right colour, right size and shape. We take cuttings from the coral we harvest, just like taking cuttings from your garden, and within months that coral has grown back to normal and we can harvest it again. It’s renewable.”
Daniel said most of Monsoon Aquatics’ local harvesting was done north of Baffle Creek in “murky, coastal water with big tides that no tourist will ever dream of diving”. “There are so many hidden gems in the inshore dirty waters that aren’t considered real coral reefs, but that’s where lots of our corals come from,” he said. “It’s all got to be kept live on board, cleaned and stored in punnets because we’re out to sea for ten days at a time.”
Daniel explained that coral harvesting for aquariums was a niche industry, with only 30 licences issued in Queensland. “Each operator owns a handful of licenses; there aren’t many of us,” he said. “If licensees are doing things sustainably and ethically, we should not be ashamed or worried about utilising our renewable natural resources. It’s important for regional economies.”
Monsoon Aquatics is a registered Reef Guardian. “We don’t touch reef that’s stressed,” Daniel said. “Last summer we saw some pretty serious bleaching and by July that was already recovered. It’s really important that people who are out on the water are monitoring the health of the reef and reporting bleaching, and disturbances like crown-of-thorns starfish, to the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority via the app, Eye-on-the-Reef. But it’s just as important to report healthy reef and record how it recovers.”
Daniel said all Queenslanders needed to be acutely aware of how they portray the Great Barrier Reef to others. “I’ve had people tell me they want to get their dive ticket before the Reef is dead, and that’s alarming because if the media is pushing this idea that the reef is dying, it’s dead, people aren’t going to come and visit it,” he said. “If it’s not worth anything to the tourism economy, we won’t protect it. It’s as simple as that.”
Daniel said it was important to acknowledge that reefs have always gone through stresses and humans can play an important role in reducing that. “But we should also acknowledge that it adapts and will outlive us,” he said. “It’s been there a long, long time. I’m out on the reef, I see it adapt and change. It’s constantly evolving. The reef we have now isn’t the same as it was 50,000 years ago and it’s not the reef that will probably be there in another 50,000 years.”
Daniel said the Southern Great Barrier Reef was a completely underrated dive location. “It can be easier to access dive sites in other locations but you’re sharing the site with 2000 other people, many of whom are diving or snorkelling for the first time,” he said. “It’s not the wild, pristine, untouched experience we have here. Put in the extra time and get out to the islands off Bundaberg. It’s an authentic, exclusive experience for adventurers.”
After winning multiple business and export awards in the Northern Territory, Daniel and Brooke have big plans to grow their business in Bundaberg. Monsoon Aquatics employs 40 people, including 15 in Bundaberg. “We’re using local tradies, and bringing in new money from interstate and overseas,” Daniel said. “We’ve continued to grow through COVID19, and we’re really enjoying Bundaberg. We love what we do; it’s our life.”
Brooke said Daniel occasionally took his love for the ocean a step too far, by going to bed without a shower after a swim at the beach. Daniel confessed: “I like the feeling. I’d drink it (sea water) if I could”.