Forbes has described the Underwater Museum of Art (MUSA) in Cancun as one of the world’s most unique travel destinations, and indeed it must be seen to be believed. Located within the boundaries of the National Marine Park of Cancun, the museum is both an artistic achievement and a conservation initiative that aims to help regenerate coral reefs in the area. Sitting in crystal-clear water no deeper than 20 feet/7 meters, the museum is an installation by British sculptor Jason DeCaires Taylor, a landscape of over 500 human figures collectively known as The Silent Evolution. The statues are life-size sentinels scattered across approximately 1,380 square feet in various poses on the sandy seafloor, representing humanity in all its fascinating forms. Constructed of concrete specifically blended to promote the adhesion and growth of coral species, the statues have become a literal metaphor for the connection between mankind and the ocean. Over time, nature has begun to reclaim the figures, with the creeping growth of soft, green algae on the face of a young girl here, or in the baby steps of branching staghorn coral emerging from the chest and shoulders of an old man there.
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The museum is not Jason DeCaires Taylor’s first foray into underwater sculpture; the concept was born in 2006, when Taylor, an art-school graduate, underwater photographer and diving instructor, created a similar installation off the coast of Grenada. Both parks share the same conservation goals: first, to relieve pressure on area reefs by providing diving and snorkeling alternatives, and second, to create hospitable conditions for new coral growth while simultaneously acting as a protected habitat for local marine species. MUSA was erected in collaboration with marine-park authorities as well as marine biologists to ensure that it impacted positively on the underwater environment. The lifelike figures are constructed entirely of materials that not only encourage coral growth but also which are designed to last for centuries — plenty of time for visitors to marvel at the metamorphosis of the sculptures into a unique reef, thriving with color and life. Some of the sculptures, including a life-size replica of a Volkswagen Beetle, known as The Anthropocene, incorporate habitats designed for specific creatures; the Beetle holds a lobster hatchery, other spaces provide nurseries for juvenile fish. Other sculptures have been used to provide frames for corals rescued from damaged areas of the natural reef, and which are now flourishing in their new home.
Ultimately, Taylor’s sculptures have another, equally important purpose — to illustrate the positive ways in which humans can interact with the marine environment, and to emphasize protection for the world’s reef ecosystems. Globally, coral reefs have declined in recent years by as much as 40 percent; projects like Taylor’s may be our only chance of preserving these fragile, yet vital, ecosystems. Best of all, because MUSA is so shallow, the park is accessible to everyone, from snorkelers to beginner divers and beyond.