At New Great Barrier Reef Sculpture Exhibit, Visitors Dive Among Conservation-Inspired Submerged Art

A new sunken sculpture trail at the Museum of Underwater Art in Australia uses powerful art pieces to highlight threats facing the world’s oceans.

Museum of Underwater Art’s new <i>Ocean Sentinel</i> sculptures by Jason deCaires Taylor honor the guardians of the Great Barrier Reef.

Museum of Underwater Art’s new Ocean Sentinel sculptures by Jason deCaires Taylor honor the guardians of the Great Barrier Reef.

Photo by Jason deCaires Taylor

For nearly two decades, British eco-sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor’s fascinating underwater art worlds have brought greater awareness to our threatened oceans—while actively helping regenerate life within them. His sunken museums filled with sculptures that double as artificial reefs are located throughout the globe, including off the shores of Mexico, France, and Indonesia. The artist’s newest immersed works of art are being unveiled among one of nature’s most impressive masterpieces and most vulnerable assets, the Great Barrier Reef.

Ocean Sentinels is the artist’s latest installation at the Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA) in the heart of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. MOUA, a series of large-scale underwater exhibits, all by deCaires Taylor, first opened in 2020 with an aim to connect art, conservation, science, and tourism.

While his artworks are standing on the ocean floor rather than displayed in a gallery on land, the sculptor believes calling the spaces that house them museums is important: “Museums are places of conservation, education, and about protecting something sacred. We need to assign those same values to our oceans.”

His new series of hybrid-human figure sculptures honoring the marine scientists, conservationists, and Indigenous communities who protect the Great Barrier Reef—the reef’s “ocean sentinels” as it were—officially launches on World Oceans Day, June 8, 2023. These submerged sculptures can be viewed by snorkeling or diving at MOUA off the coast of Townsville, Queensland.

Each Ocean Sentinel sculpture is a synthesis of a human form and the natural marine elements, such as corals and shells, that refer to the individual’s expertise. As the mission of all of deCaires Taylor’s work, the underwater sculptures not only put a spotlight on our fragile oceans and reefs under pressure but also provide new havens for coral to regenerate and marine life to thrive.

“I hope it [Ocean Sentinels] will . . . introduce people to some of the world’s leading marine biologists and their field of study,” deCaires Taylor tells AFAR.

Submerged shallow enough to be accessible for snorkelers, at 13 to 20 feet below the water’s surface, the sculptures are made from a low-carbon eco-friendly concrete—pH neutral marine-grade cement, which is free from harmful pollutants and textured to instigate coral growth. Standing over seven feet tall and weighing three tons, the eight sculptures were placed in an area of barren sandbanks to draw snorkelers and divers away from more fragile reefs nearby.

Over time, the sculptures will be colonized by marine life and will become sanctuaries for new ecosystems. “I visited the sculptures three days after installing them and already they had a thin film of algae which fish were eating, and a few sea cucumbers and starfish had crawled up,” reports deCaires Taylor, adding that in six months he expects to see juvenile corals and sponges forming.

Sunken sculpture at Great Barrier Reef Museum of Underwater Art

Jason deCaires Taylor’s sunken sculptures act as a base for coral to grow and marine life to colonize.

Photo by Jason deCaires Taylor

Snorkelers and divers can view Ocean Sentinels at John Brewer Reef, where the eco-artist’s other exhibit, The Coral Greenhouse, is also located, creating an underwater sculpture trail. This is the artist’s first underwater building, and the 137-ton structure includes 20 hyper-realistic human figure sculptures tending to coral gardens. The figures are cast from local youth; the eco-sculptor’s subjects are often young people as he believes the planet’s future rests in their hands. A recent fish survey shows a 400 percent increase in diversity and a 500 percent increase in abundance since it was installed in 2019. The first MOUA installation was Ocean Siren, a 13-foot-tall statue rising above the water, modeled on Takoda Johnson, a young Indigenous girl, that changes color in real time as the sea warms and serves as a warning beacon visible from the shore.

The guardians of the Great Barrier Reef

The Townsville region, home to the James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, is at the forefront of marine biology, says deCaires Taylor. The Ocean Sentinels underwater sculpture trail at John Brewer Reef aims to create an inspiring and educational introduction to the Great Barrier Reef.

“It’s a living piece of art that communicates to the people how important research is, how important coral reefs are, and how all these aspects—art, science, humanity—can come together to protect the reef,” Dr. Katharina Fabricius, one of the Ocean Sentinel muses and one of the region’s leading coral reef ecologists, tells Australia Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) News.

Part of MOUA’s mission includes showing the Indigenous connection and role in protecting the Great Barrier Reef. Representing the next generation of Indigenous leaders is Jayme Marshall, a Wulgurukaba and Yunbenen woman who’s honored as an Ocean Sentinel. Paying homage to Australia’s traditional owners, deCaires Taylor’s artwork morphs Marshall and roots from a cathedral fig tree and mangrove.

Two underwater sculptures

As a scuba diver, Jason deCaires Taylor saw corals declining around the world and began his work to design sculptures that could serve as artificial reefs.

Photo by Jason deCaires Taylor

MOUA engages with the region’s Indigenous cultures with its Manbarra traditional owner board member and a training program that certifies local Indigenous community members to be dive guides for MOUA.

Art that inspires action

The single biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef and other reefs around the world is rising sea temperatures due to global warming. The largest living structure on Earth plays a critical role in climate change because it’s also one of the biggest carbon sinks in the world; the Great Barrier Reef’s seagrass and mangrove forests store 111 million tons of carbon. With four mass coral bleaching events in recent years, its conservation is vital.

The eco-artist’s work calls attention to the climate emergency with art installations that question our relationship to the planet. DeCaires Taylor believes art plays a critical role in making people “feel the science” where stats and headlines cannot. His sculptures are often cast from the local people living nearby and draw awareness to our warming seas, environmental activism, and the ability of nature to rebound.

“Art and science are critical partners in the battle against climate change,“ deCaires Taylor says. “We are emotional beings, and as centuries of religion have shown, we need to believe and feel something in order to act.”

One of Jason deCaries Taylor's sculptures before and after being submerged at the Museum of Underwater Art

One of Jason deCaires Taylor’s Coral Greenhouse sculptures before and after it was submerged at MOUA.

Photos by Jason deCaires Taylor

As an avid scuba diver, deCaires Taylor saw firsthand corals declining worldwide and began his life’s crusade to collaborate with nature: to design sculptures that could function as artificial, yet living and evolving reefs. In 2006, he created the world’s first underwater sculpture park in Grenada, and now he has more than 1,100 underwater living artworks across the globe, including a first-of-its-kind underwater forest that opened in 2021 at Cyprus’s Museum of Underwater Sculpture Ayia Napa.

“We desperately need to change our relationship and understanding with the natural world and our integral connection,” says deCaires Taylor. “I hope my work reminds us that we are nature; we are an integral part of the ecosystem and our ultimate fate depends on it.“

How to visit: Book a tour with approved Museum of Underwater operators, participate in citizen science projects such as recording your observations on iNaturalist, and help fight climate change and protect the Great Barrier Reef by making simple everyday changes.

Kathleen Rellihan is a travel journalist and editor covering adventure, culture, climate, and sustainability. Formerly Newsweek‘s travel editor, she contributes to outlets such as AFAR, Outside, TIME, CNN Travel, and more.
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