Esplanade Lagoon is still making splash after 20 years

A free family friendly celebration has been planned to celebrate the 20th birthday of the city’s biggest swimming pool.

The Esplanade Lagoon was officially opened on 29 March 2003 by former State Premier Peter Beattie and former Cairns Mayor Kevin Byrne.

To celebrate its 20th birthday, Council is holding a free family event at the Lagoon from 3pm to 9pm on Saturday 1 April.

The event will include free admission to the Reef Eye Ferris Wheel, live entertainment, children’s activities, and the screening of the movie Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Cairns Mayor Bob Manning said the Esplanade Lagoon was an enduring testament to what could be achieved when different levels of government worked together.

“The Cairns Esplanade Lagoon project was a joint initiative of the Council and State Government, brought online with a $22.5 million budget,” Cr Manning said.

The State Government provided $11.5 million to kick start the project and Council met the remaining $11 million to ensure the work was completed to meet the expectations of both locals and visitors.

The Federal Government also provided support for later stages of the Cairns Esplanade foreshore redevelopment.

“Credit needs to go to former Mayors Tom Pyne and Kevin Byrne and their respective Councils for their foresight and vision in transforming the Cairns Esplanade into the iconic destination it is today, and will continue to be in the future,” Cr Manning said.

“One of the aims of this project was to develop Cairns into a “must do” destination for visitors.

“It was also to provide a facility on the waterfront that would enhance the city’s heart and help keep it vibrant and vital for the enjoyment of everyone.

“I know that at the time there was some resistance to this vision, but 20 years on, I don’t think you would find too many people who could argue about the value it has added to our city.

“I would also like to recognise current Deputy Mayor, Terry James, who served as chairman of the committee which oversaw the management of this project, a role he has since undertaken with many times with Council.”

Cr Manning said works to redevelop the Cairns Esplanade foreshore coincided with the Cairns Cityport project being undertaken by the Cairns Port Authority, where he was CEO until 2002.

“The Cairns Port Authority allocated an initial $6 million for the development of Cairns CityPort project, which transformed a section of the waterfront from The Pier and the Cairns Hilton Hotel, providing a waterfront tourism precinct next to the Cairns CBD,” he said.

“I recall that while the projects were being undertaken separately, it was important that we worked collaboratively to ensure there as a smooth transition of the waterfront experience from CityPort across to the Esplanade redevelopment.”

In 2003, a “Big Splash” community event was held to celebrate the Lagoon’s opening and to acknowledge years of consultation, cooperation, and communication between Council, the State Government, Traditional Owners, and the community.

The event was attended by more than 25,000 people.

At the time of its opening, Mr Byrne wrote in the Big Splash program booklet: “There is no doubt that the opening of the Cairns Esplanade Swimming Lagoon precinct will herald a new era for the inner City of Cairns.”

His words were prophetic, with the facility the most frequented public destination in the city and beloved by locals and visitors alike.

In the two decades since coming online, the 4,000 square metre artificial pool, has hosted more than 25 million visitors.

It remains a “go to” for both locals and visitors, with a sandy area on eastern edge and a newly refurbished timber boardwalk, jetties and grassy expanses on the opposite side.

Open and free to the public seven days a week, the filtered salt-water lagoon provides a welcoming environment, complemented by a nearby dining precinct, picnic areas and children’s playground.

Former Cairns Mayor Kevin Byrne reflects on the project

Kevin Byrne was at the helm when the Esplanade Lagoon project started to take shape, moving from a concept to a reality.

It was a project that would transform the Cairns Esplanade from a strip of grass and concrete steps down to a beach that as more mud than sand, into the iconic destination it is today.

He was elected as Mayor of Cairns in 1992, re-elected in 1994, and then was defeated by Tom Pyne in 1995.

However, he was re-elected as Mayor in 2000, and despite some vocal opposition, quickly set about getting the Esplanade Lagoon project moving.

“A lot of people were against it at the time, these were the days when Cairns did not have the confidence it has now,” Mr Byrne said.

“I believed we needed to be an international city and international cities have to think big.

“This was the second big project that really internationalised Cairns, after the opening Cairns International Airport.

“I never had a doubt it would be a success, we just had to press go and we had to be committed to it.”

Construction of the lagoon was a logistical challenge that included reclamation of the foreshore, allowing for stormwater drainage from the city, and pumping water from the Trinity Inlet through a complex filtration system.

“From a cane farm in Yorkeys Knob, we trucked in over a period of about six months all the sand the needed to reclaim the area where the lagoon is and more,” Mr Byrne said.

“Once the sand was dumped, we had to let it stay and settle and compact. Then we put the seawall along it and then we started to build the pool.

“It was a visionary project and Cains really needed something like that at that stage and looked at how much investment it spawned in that part of our city.”

Mr Byrne said that there was strong co-operation between the Council and the Cairns Port Authority.

“At that stage, we worked very closely with the Cairns Port Authority. It was important that the lagoon project aligned with the work the Cairns Port Authority were doing with the development of the marina and the carpark in front of Shangri La.

“We had to make sure that those developments were aligned.”

20th birthday celebrations

A free family friendly event will be held at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon on Saturday 1 April to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the facility’s opening.

The event, from 3pm to 9pm, will include free admission to the Reef Eye Ferris Wheel, live entertainment, children’s activities, and the screening of the movie Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Cairns Mayor Bob Manning encouraged families to head to the lagoon for the celebrations.

“The redevelopment of the Cairns Esplanade and the opening of the Lagoon was monumental for Cairns and it has had a lasting positive impact on the foreshore,” Cr Manning said.

“It is internationally recognisable, attracting millions of visitors and has been hugely popular with locals.

“The Our Cairns survey, conducted in 2020 with more than 8000 respondents, rated the Esplanade Lagoon as the city’s most used recreational facility, with 26% of respondents indicating they visit it 10 or more times a year.

Lagoon art

To generate a strong, wide reaching sense of community and regional identity, Council commissioned public art to be part of the Esplanade Lagoon.

Torres Strait artist Brian Robinson was responsible for creating the instantly recognisable Woven Fish sculptures, which have become an iconic feature of the foreshore.

The five, 2.5-metre-high stainless-steel sculptures are replicas of the traditional Torres Strait Islander practice of weaving palm leaves into the shape of fish.

The Herd, by Hew Chee Fong and Loretta Noonan, which greets you when approached from the Lagoon Plaza, are said to resemble a herd heading out to sea.

Individually carved from granite, the pattern is reminiscent of the mud flats seen along the Esplanade at mid to low tide.

The work seeks to engage the viewer’s imagination and encourages interaction.

Fast facts

  • The lagoon has an area of 4,000 square metres and a capacity of 3.5 megalitres.
  • It is 135 metres across its widest section and can accommodate up to 1000 people at a time.
  • Its depth ranges from about 80cm to 1.6m.
  • Salt water is pumped from the inlet and filtered through a state-of-the-art filtration system to meet Australian standards. Four megalitres of water is filtered, sanitised, and chemically balanced every four hours of operation – that’s more than 8 billion litres of water pumped and cleaned each year.
  • On average, 100,000 to 150,000 people visit the lagoon each month, with more than 25 million visitors since its opening.
  • The cast insitu concrete shell of the Lagoon is supported by 326 concrete piles.
  • A total of 500 tonnes of hot dipped galvanised steel reinforcement has been cast into 3,700 cubic metres of concrete.
  • The lagoon base slab construction comprised of 11 individual concrete slab sections joined by waterproof expansion and construction joints that have been mastic sealed.
  • Opening hours: Thursday to Tuesday 6am to 9pm; Wednesday noon to 9pm (closed before noon for cleaning and maintenance).


1998: Council, under Mayor Tom Pyne, prepared and put before the State Government a proposal for the redevelopment of the Cairns Esplanade. The Rob Borbidge State Government allocated $7.5 million in its Budget for the start of the project.

2000: Works to reclaim parts of the foreshore for the redevelopment begin. For more than six months sand was transported from a cane farm in Yorkeys Knob to the foreshore.

February 2001: Mayor of Cairns Kevin Byrne confirms that construction of a saltwater lagoon will go ahead, despite concerns from some residents. He said following three rounds of consultation, more than two years and two separate Council administrations, there was overwhelming support for the project and the lagoon. The Cairns Ratepayers and Citizens Group had called on the Council to delay the project by a further three years to allow for more public consultation.

September 2001: Construction starts on the seawall to protect the reclaimed grassy areas from waves.

April 2002: Seymour Whyte Constructions Pty Ltd (principal contactor) commences work on the initial stages of the Esplanade Project, including excavations for the lagoon.

May 2002: Pile driving of concrete columns into the ground as part of the foundation of the lagoon starts. Work also begins in the installation of formwork.

July 2002: Concrete pours for the lagoon base begin. The slab is comprised of 11 individual concrete sections joined by waterproof expansion and construction joints that have been mastic sealed.

January 2003: Woven Fish sculptures and The Herd public art pieces are installed.

February 2003: Lagoon is filled with water and the lifeguard tower is completed.

March 2003: Official opening of the Esplanade Lagoon by former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and former Cairns Mayor Kevin Byrne.

/Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) might be of the point-in-time nature, and edited for clarity, style and length. Mirage.News does not take institutional positions or sides, and all views, positions, and conclusions expressed herein are solely those of the author(s).View in full here.