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Something Fishy

Underwater sculptures attract divers and marine life to help protect a neighboring natural reef.

By Alanna Malone
January 31, 2013
Photo © Jason deCaires Taylor
The statues of Museo Subacutico de Arte occupy over 4,520 square feet and serve as artificial reefs, attracting an array of marine life such as colorful fish, turtles, sea urchins, sponges, and sharks.

The National Marine Park of Cancún, Isla Mujeres, and Punta Nizuc in Mexico is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Though great for the country's economy, the high traffic can be damaging to the natural environment. To help draw the influx of divers away from endangered coral reefs, the park commissioned English sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor to create the Museo Subacuático de Arte to demonstrate the interaction between art and environmental science. Four years later, almost 500 sculptures divert 50 percent of divers away from natural reefs, allowing them to repair and regenerate.

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Taylor creates casts of living people using a marine-grade cement that is metal-free, pH-neutral, and reinforced with rigid fiberglass. Individuals may apply to become models, but he is constantly on the lookout for people with unique features who might become good additions to the collection. "We did a huge environmental-impact assessment before we placed them," says Taylor, a diver who used to teach students about reef conservation in Australia. "And now they're providing substrate for marine life." The statues are drilled into the seabed with large pilings to keep them fixed on formerly barren stretches of sand. Algae begin arriving within weeks, and after a few months the statues are barely recognizable. Trained divers lead tourists through the body of work.

"I'm recently more focused on smaller pieces with a message," Taylor explains. One of the most popular new statues is of a man with his head in the sand—representing our general attitude toward the climate-change crisis.

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