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August 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Art as Artificial Reefs

a good idea or a distraction from the real problem?

from the August, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Last September, the Grenada Board of Tourism issued a press release, announcing an "exciting new addition" to its list of tourist attractions. It was a bench. Yes, you read right -- a bench.

It's the latest addition to Grenada's Underwater Sculpture Park, the first of its kind, in Molinere Bay. The bench is 15 feet underwater, near the "Vicissitudes" sculpture, a ring of stone children. The press release calls the bench, "its latest installation, more than a little 'tongue in cheek' in spirit ... The piece presents an opportunity to take a seat and some time out, breathe a few bubbles and reflect on the art installation."

Is this what diving has come to? Touting benches as the latest exciting additions to the underwater environment? Well, yes. Artificial reefs are common worldwide, purposefully sunken structures made out of everything from subway cars to warships, and they're touted as exciting new sites for divers to explore and fish to thrive in. Now trending upward is "underwater art," which started with the statue Christ of the Abyss being sunk near Key Largo, FL, in 1965, and continues today with hundreds of statues in "underwater museums" in the Caribbean. There's even a group of Los Angeles moviemakers working with beach resorts to build underwater "Fantasyland" structures.

The newest man-made reef is the U.S.S. Mohawk, a WWII-era Coast Guard cutter sunk on July 2 near Fort Myers Beach, FL. Apparently, it's the first artificial reef to memorialize veterans. But let's be frank. The Mohawk was sunk to be a moneymaker first, a memorial second. Sunken wrecks that draw divers create millions of dollars for the tourism industry. Seeing the effect on its bottom line, the dive industry is taking matters into its own hands and promoting the sunk ships and underwater sculptures as the hottest, newest trips on the itinerary. Phil Saye, who runs Dive Grenada and Grenada's Ultimate Dive Resort, came up with the idea for the underwater bench, saying, "I wanted to create something that would be unusual and capture the imagination of underwater photographers, but also fit with the concept of the Underwater Sculpture Park. The images taken on the bench will be fantastic marketing for Grenada as a whole."

"If we can take pressure off existing
reef systems from tourism, and focus
that pressure on one area, then we're
helping to preserve natural reefs."

Maybe that's because most of Grenada's natural reefs are no longer worth marketing to serious divers. We have seen the effects of climate change, overfishing and resort development on reefs worldwide, and that has changed where we dive, and how many times we dive. Dive operators see that, and understandably they're doing what they can to get new and repeat business. But are these man-made reefs taking attention away from the natural ones? Should we be less focused on visiting the hottest, newest reefs being built, and be more concerned about how to protect and restore the reefs that have been around forever?

Sculptures as Reef Saviors

The most well-known name in the underwater art world is Jason De Caires Taylor. He started Grenada's underwater park in 2006, then the Cancun Underwater Museum, known by its Spanish acronym MUSA, in 2010. He began with 200 human-like sculptures, making them out of marine-grade cement, and using trucks and barges to place them at the bottom of a national marine park between Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Most sculptures sit at 28 feet, with a shallower portion set aside for snorkeling. Taylor, now director of MUSA, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle that the museum draws about 750,000 visitors a year and is one of the Yucatan's most popular attractions ( www.underwatersculpture.com ).

The first sculpture collection, "The Silent Evolution," includes life-sized human figures like Rosario, Taylor's Spanish teacher when he came to Mexico. A full-size VW Beetle was designed to be a lobster haven. The sculptures are meant to change over time as marine life populates them -- a girl acquires a fur coat made of algae, a starfish implants itself on a nun's face. Taylor's goal is to provide new habitat for sea life, and draw divers and snorkelers away from coral reefs suffering from tourism. He also wants to shed light on the ocean's problems for a wider audience beyond divers. In an interview with the blog Environmental Graffiti, Taylor said, "I believe we have to address some of the crucial problems occurring in our oceans at this moment in time, and by using human forms, I can connect with a wider audience."

He added 63 new sculptures to MUSA last month. They include the kinetic sculpture Phoenix, a woman with movable wings of living purple gorgonian fan coral that appear to beat with the wave cycles. The Listener is a human form made out of casts of human ears molded during a workshop of local Cancun youth, and equipped with an underwater listening device that projects sounds of the reef. The Last Supper is a dining table carved from a rock outcropping, with half-eaten fish on plates, and a centerpiece of apples and hand grenades, illustrating the peril oceans face from overfishing.

If you want to check out MUSA, Aquaworld is the dive shop offering two-tank afternoon dives and snorkel trips of the museum ( www.aquaworld.com.mx ).

Can Hollywood Save the Ocean?

Jason De Caires Taylor's VicissitudesA group of Los Angeles-based film set designers who've worked on Avatar and the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean multiples now intend to work their magic in the marine world. They started Reef Worlds, a business to "create entire worlds underwater for tourism" ( www.reefworlds.com ). Starting with underwater playgrounds for high net-worth clients who own their own islands, Reef Worlds is now pitching beach resorts with artificial reefs that can keep guests enthralled within hotel boundaries -- and give tourism-damaged reefs a breather.

Dave Taylor, a former tourism marketing consultant now serving as Reef Worlds' design and ecology lead, told Undercurrent, "Up until a couple of years ago, resorts didn't think about anything beyond their high-tide lines. If we can take pressure off the existing reef systems from mass tourism and focus that tourism pressure on one area, then we're helping to preserve natural reef systems, and creating a monetized area that the resort wants to develop and protect. The resort wins, the guests win and the environment wins."

Reef Worlds' designers worked with coral biologists and dive site developers to build out-of-this-world figures and structures that look like they came out of Angkor Wat, the Aztec empire, and even Star Wars' Mos Eisley cantina. They're made out of crushed rock from old coral beds and low pH concrete that repels algae and attracts coral. The goal, says Taylor: "We want visitors to have the feeling Howard Carter did, when he first shone his light on King Tut's tomb and said, 'I see fantastic things.'"

Reef Worlds won't divulge client names, but Taylor says it is discussing projects with resorts in Cancun, the Bahamas and the South Pacific, with its first 10-acre resort site done by early 2013. It has turned down projects due to unsuitable sites, like when a potential client in Phuket asked Reef Worlds to build on a staghorn coral forest. "They were like, 'Let's just move it,'" said Taylor. "They were missing the whole point." The sites Reef Worlds wants to build on are sandy bottoms, broken coral beds and other places devoid of marine life. "We promote 'do no harm tourism,'" Taylor says.

A Sample Sculpture by Reef WorldsThe entire process, from design to placement, takes about a year. The fee starts at around $100,000 for a standard three-acre site to $1 million for a project with all the bells and whistles. Taylor says it's worth the cost in the long run. "It protects a country's natural resources, and encourages more tourism." Reef Worlds guarantees its structures are heavy enough to withstand category-five hurricanes, but will replace them for free if they do move. Because the reefs are a marketing tool, each site will be completely branded to the resort it's built at, with its own name and back story.

Taylor admits Reef World's' clientele are not frequent divers. "But the fact is the vast majority of divers are part-time holiday divers, a huge market segment that is completely underserved. We envision a world in which resorts and governments install these sites close to shore in poor habitat locations to serve that market, and at the same time create thriving habitat for fish and wildlife. It's an exciting time to be in the artificial reef business, because we have come a long way from the days of dropping tires wrapped in wire over the side of barges to create a reef."


From Bad to Benign

But most ocean-conservation groups believe we all have a long way to go in reef protection, and they're skeptical that man-made reefs and marine preserves will do the trick. Sarah Freiermuth, development director at the Coral Reef Alliance, says that while artificial reefs and underwater art projects certainly have their place, "If we develop them without addressing the root causes of reef decline, we are distracting from the real threats and simply prolonging the inevitable."

Jacqueline Savitz, senior scientist and vice president of North America for Oceana, says the different type of man-made projects range from bad ideas to relatively benign ones. The bad ones include dumping subway cars and sinking huge naval ships. "Cleaning those up are a project in itself, like getting all the oil out of tankers, or removing chemicals like PCB out of their electrical systems. Sometimes, these projects can just be an excuse for ocean dumping."

Savitz has dived the Neptune Memorial Reef, an underwater mausoleum near Miami made out of concrete reef balls (see our August 2008 story on the dive site and its designer, Eternal Reefs), and says it seems benign, "but it's not of a magnitude that it will save the oceans." She's also against the oil and gas industry suggesting their oil rigs be left in place as havens for marine life. "They're notorious for not arguing the case for sea life until the very end. They spill oil, then say the rigs are actually good for sea life, but they should admit it's just cheaper to leave them there. The cost of removing oil rigs should be part of the cost to do business."

She does like Reef Worlds' pitch, however. "It sounds like a better thing to build on top of a reef, and it could have a neutral effect if it's done right. The Fantasyland idea could be a good way to get people snorkeling, diving and enjoying the ocean, but we have to make sure we do it in a way that protects what we're enjoying. That's the criteria criterion to use in any artificial reef project."

- - Vanessa Richardson

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