How can a collection of underwater man-made sculptures help protect habitats for sealife? One artificial reef expert thinks he knows how.
Most artists go to great lengths to preserve their work -- even a starving painter will invest in a little bit of lacquer. Not Jason de Caires Taylor. The 36-year-old sculptor is happiest when his creations have made their way to the bottom of the sea and are crawling with algae.
"I work with a team of people but my best employees are the fish and the coral," Taylor says. "They do all the finishing of the sculptures."
Taylor made a name for himself in 2006 when he installed the world's first underwater museum in Grenada using a special PH neutral concrete to create sculptures that would later evolve into artificial reefs.
Officials at Cancún's Isla Mujeres West Coast, Punta Cancun and Punta Nizuc National Park ( a complicated name for a simply beautiful ecological reserve) were impressed with Taylor's work and believed he might be able to create a similar, yet more ambitious project in Mexico. The result is the new Underwater Museum, which is located on the sea floor adjacent to the natural reefs. Park officials plan for it to eventually be the home of 400 human-size sculptures created by Taylor along with guest artists, and become the largest of its kind in the world. Taylor has been brought on to be the museum's art director.
But are park officials worried this new museum could take away some of the nearly 750,000 visitors that plunge into its waters each year? On the contrary, they're hoping Taylor's creations will give the natural reefs, which were battered during past hurricanes, a bit of a break.
"If this one brings more people to artificial habitats then I have no problems. By helping with conservation I'm doing part of my duty," the park's director, Jaime Gonzalez says.
"The best reef conservation is to leave reefs alone," says Taylor.
The natural reefs are currently in great shape, but having the artificial reefs nearby will help divert divers and their potentially harmful flippers and oxygen tanks.
"What we see now is that people first want to see the natural reefs and the second dive is the museum," explains Underwater Museum president Roberto Diaz.
Each new visit will have the potential for a new world of surprises. According to Taylor, algae moves in within three or four weeks, after a month and a half along come the embryonic corals, and about three years down the line big sponges join the crowd.
"I always photograph my work and the highlight of it all is to go back and see how amazingly different they can be," Taylor says.
Recently Taylor made a trip to check up on Man on Fire, one of the four sculptures he installed during the museum's first phase in November. The 1-ton piece depicts a stoic local fisherman and is already beginning to sprout yellow fire coral from the tiny holes in its head where Taylor and his team planted live fire coral cuttings. Its constant companion is a territorial barracuda that Taylor says is always lurking around.
This isn't the first time the park has taken creative preservation methods. In 2005 officials installed 100 concrete domes in order to attract marine life to an area that was badly damaged by a cruise ship in 2005. According to Gonzalez, "some people thought they were ugly," but they served their purpose. The area near Sac Bajo is now flourishing with new life and is a popular diving destination.
This time tourists will have much more to draw them there than abstract cement domes.
"They'll see something they'll never see in any other place in the world. It's a great symbiosis between humans and nature," Taylor says.
For more information on the underwater museum visit www.underwatersculpture.com
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