On the bed of the Caribbean sea, underwater art doubling as an artificial reef is helping to preserve the ocean’s ecosystems.
Photographs by: Jason deCaires Taylor | CARIBBEAN
Words by: Eleanor Scott
One of the greatest environmental challenges humans face today is the decline of our oceans and aquatic life. The issue has been escalating for years. Though coral reefs only occupy about 1% of the ocean, they are also responsible for 25% of marine life. Yet, almost 40% of coral reefs have vanished in the past few decades. Without intervention, scientists estimate that that number could rise to 90% by 2030. Ocean heating, toxic pollution and overfishing – the problems seem almost insurmountable. In spite of this, environmental artists like Jason deCaires Taylor are determined to be a part of the solution.
A longtime scuba diving instructor and a former art student, it’s not surprising that deCaires Taylor would eventually find a way to combine his two passions: sculpture and the sea. The initial idea of creating artificial reefs came to Taylor while he was working in the Caribbean. A large hurricane hit the coast of one of the islands and completely destroyed the surrounding reef structures. Instantly the tourism on that island died.
“I came up with this plan. If I [installed] these underwater sculptures then they would create artificial reefs, but also help to bring tourism back without causing damage,” says deCaires Taylor. “There was one place that was sort of untouched by the hurricane … and all the tourists were heading to that one spot so it was very quickly becoming degraded. The idea was to draw those people away from harming that area as well.
In order to grow, coral spores need a structure that they can cling to. However, most of the ocean floor is unable to support a reef. That’s where artificial reefs come in. From purposefully sunken ships to carefully considered art installations, these underwater structures are able to facilitate marine life in the same way as natural reefs. However, they’re only truly beneficial when crafted in a way that won’t harm the environment.
“I’m a little bit sceptical about artificial reefs,” admits deCaires Taylor. “It’s much more important to save the reefs we’ve got than to try to create new ones. And people often use them as a way to dump things in the sea … when in fact to really make a reef you have to use the correct materials, you have to anchor it properly. You have to do big environmental assessments. It’s quite a complicated process.”
Using non-toxic, pH neutral marine-grade cement, which is free from harmful chemicals that could leach into the sea, deCaires Taylor has conducted years of testing to ensure that each sculpture is able to become a long-lasting part of the local ecosystem. The cement doesn’t degrade and its textured surface encourages coral larvae to attach and thrive. Location is also a crucial consideration. Each installation is deliberately placed away from popular reefs to boost diversity, but also to “draw tourists away from the delicate ecosystems and fragile corals of existing reefs, where people may do more harm than good with their well-intentioned curiosity,” says deCaires Taylor.
“I’m desperately worried about our environment and very concerned about the future we are leaving for the next generation. It’s not just about appealing to intellectuals in the art world, it’s about reaching out to everybody.”
deCaires Taylor has been producing these sculptures and submerging them anywhere from four to nine metres underwater since 2006. Each installations developing ecosystems are unbelievably varied, but their visual messages all share common overriding themes. The Bankers depicts people with their heads buried in the sand after the 2008 global financial crisis, while Inertia shows a man wasting away in front of the television as a comment on consumerism. Museo Atlántico references the refugee crisis through a stark portrayal of bereft human figures adrift in rafts, yet, on a more hopeful note, The Silent Evolution uses 450 life-sized cement figures to represent people defending our oceans.
“I’m desperately worried about our environment and very concerned about the future we are leaving for the next generation,” explains deCaires Taylor. “It’s not just about appealing to intellectuals in the art world, it’s about reaching out to everybody.”
And while deCaires Taylor’s pieces are stunning to behold, what’s truly incredible is that they do work on a practical level as well. “I’ve just finished [a project] in Spain in the Atlantic Ocean, which is a colder water environment so I didn’t think it would actually become a reef so much as a tropical area,” says deCaires Taylor. “But I’ve actually been really surprised. We had a 200% increase in marine biomass, literally millions and millions of fish and different species living on it and it’s only been in the water for a couple of years.”
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that facts and figures are enough to persuade people or enough for people to act … I think what art has the ability to do is to instantly translate a complicated argument into a single image or into a single feeling. And that’s so vital,”
It’s not a perfect solution. deCaires Taylor is the first to admit that artificial reefs alone aren’t enough to turn the tide against climate change. But, aside from the literal protection of marine life, what is truly exciting about this intersection of art and science is its ability to draw people into conversations about ocean conservation in a way that is totally accessible.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that facts and figures are enough to persuade people or enough for people to act … I think what art has the ability to do is to instantly translate a complicated argument into a single image or into a single feeling. And that’s so vital,” says deCaires Taylor. “I’m not saying that science is not important, it’s extremely important. But if you can find a way to combine that scientific argument with something that’s visual and emotional … that’s a really powerful tool.”