Life Aquatic

The scene is eerily beautiful: dozens upon dozens of life-size figures, standing on the ocean floor, rays of filtered light from above dancing across their faces.

In the hushed depths of the ocean, at first it seems you’ve stumbled across a graveyard, populated by gorgeously detailed characters, every fold in their clothes and hair on their head exquisitely detailed, their eyes closed tightly against the water. But actually this underwater museum is very much about life: preserving the life of threatened coral reefs around the world.

In six such museums around the world, sculptor and photographer Jason DeCaires Taylor has created sculpture parks with a shared deep and meaningful mission: to spread the knowledge that the world’s coral reefs are dying (from pollution, overfishing, tourism, and increasing water temperatures), while also bringing new life by creating new artificial reefs with the sculptures he installs.  

These sculpture parks also draw tourists away from the fragile ecosystems of existing reefs, bringing them to view his sites, where they can watch the birth and growth of a new underwater coral ecosystem. The sculptures, which are created with marine-grade cement specifically blended to attract algae, coral larvae, and then eventually fish and crustaceans, are ever-changing, decaying and growing simultaneously—a beautiful metaphor for mortality and the cycle of nature.

The first museum, the Grenada Underwater Sculpture Park, was created in Moliniere Bay in 2006—and it was named one of the 25 New Wonders of the World by National Geographic. In the MUSA Cancun Underwater Museum, far offshore in the Caribbean sea between Cancun and Isla Mujeres in Mexico, more than 500 sculptures were sunken and installed. Thousands of visitors a year now go see this site, viewing the huge array of works while snorkeling, diving, or viewing through glass-bottom boats.

Says DeCaires Taylor, “We call it a museum for a very important reason. Museums are places of preservation, conservation and education. They’re places where we keep objects of great value to us, where we value them simply for being themselves.” For more from DeCaires Taylor on his projects, view his TED talk, or this haunting video DeCaires Taylor made in 2017 of the Museo Atlantico at night.