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Scuba Diving Artist Jason deCaires Taylor is Transforming Coral Reefs Around the World

His journey from graffiti to gold has forever changed coral reef restoration.
By Alexandra Gillespie | Authored On July 17, 2021
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Scuba Diving Artist Jason deCaires Taylor is Transforming Coral Reefs Around the World

Jason de Caires Taylor hovers without a scuba regulator in his mouth among several underwater statues of his own creation

Jason deCaires Taylor poses 26 feet below the surface with sculptures in his Silent Evolution installation at Mexico's Museo Subacuático de Arte.

Courtesy Jason deCaires Taylor

Before making routine headlines as the world’s foremost underwater artist, Jason deCaires Taylor snuck around spray painting trains. Teenage graffiti, his first outdoor installations, gave way to art school in the mid-’90s. Here he spent five years hauling sculptures from site to site to observe how different settings changed the way his creations decayed and altered viewers’ relationship to his work.

These early experiments in impermeability taught the English-Guyanese artist “not to become too precious about everything; everything evolved and changed, and you could spend ages painting something, and then it would be whitewashed the next day,” he says.

Today, waves are more likely than whitewash to erase the contours of his work. With over 1,000 reef sculptures from the Gulf of Mexico to the Australian Pacific to Norwegian fjords, the sculptor has spent more than a decade catalyzing conservation through art.

“I think art plays a really, really critical role in changing our understanding of issues” like climate change, he says. “We relate to stories and we relate to experiences, much more than we do to facts and figures.”

“A Sabbatical Adventure”

DeCaires Taylor took to diving with a poetic sensibility when certified in Turkey in his early 20s. Artistic artificial reefs are commonplace today—thanks in no small part to deCaires Taylor himself—but in the early 2000s wrecks were the primary attraction. The avid wreck diver began to wonder how an artist’s reef would take shape. “I started to look at how art can be used as an interface for the natural world, but also as a way for managing people’s experience,” he says.

Eventually the dive instructor made his way to Grenada with plans to open his own dive center. Then, in 2004, Hurricane Ivan devastated the coastline and damaged most of the Caribbean island’s dive sites. “All the tourists were heading to the last remaining pristine reef,” Flamingo Bay, deCaires Taylor says. The intense traffic was degrading the site quickly, setting the stage for an experiment in restorative art.

“I got together the local dive centers, and we hatched a plan—if we provide the alternative, a bit like a shipwreck, that could help to start to divert some of that traffic,” he says.

In 2006, the Molinere Bay Underwater Sculpture Park was born. Seventy-five installations, all made of pH-neutral cement that facilitates coral growth, sprawl across an area of more than 8,600 square feet. The park went on to become one of National Geographic’s Top 25 Wonders of the World and helped persuade Grenada to declare the surrounding waters a national marine protected area.

The statue of a young boy floats in water tinged yellow.

Sediment from fallen leaves gilds the water at Nexus in Norway’s Oslo Fjord.

Courtesy Jason deCaires Taylor

His “sabbatical adventure” went viral on the nascent web, and people began reaching out with commission inquiries. Moving to Mexico, deCaires Taylor built underwater sculpture into a full-time business and crafted the Museo Subacuático de Arte, the world’s largest aquatic installation. (Jump to visitation information.) Fifteen years later, he continues to explore the same themes as the foundation of his Grenadian debut: art as a two-way object to enrich the environment and the visitor, changing the ocean and our perception of it all at once.

Active Art

DeCaires Taylor’s installations have shaped minds, policy and the marine environment in 15 nations to date and counting.

In February, Cannes opened its Underwater Museum. (Jump to visitation information.) Six serene masks, about 6 feet tall, rest in shallow waters off the nearshore island of Île Sainte-Marguerite to rehabilitate the environment and augment the French Riviera city’s cultural programming for schoolchildren.

The seabed was dynamited in 1992 to build electric lines, says Régine Resbeut-Montanella, special advisor to the mayor of Cannes. Until this year, it remained vacant of life, collecting trash. A city-hired ecologist dived the site before, during and after the sculptures were installed, and will continue monitoring their environmental impact over time.

Like so many of deCaires Taylor’s works, the Underwater Museum of Cannes places locals under the waves—the faces are based on molds taken of Cannes residents ages 7 to 78. The artist says focusing on figural depictions both directly connects people to their waters and illustrates humanity’s relationship with nature. “I think the fact that some of my [figural] work is ingrained with marine life...reminds us that we’re also natural,” he says.

An urchin sits on the shoulder of a sculpture shaped like a woman that is covered in algae.

Sea urchins reside in the bases of statues, feeding on algae at night in the Museo Subacuático de Arte.

Courtesy Jason deCaires Taylor

For visitor safety, the city quadrupled the no-mooring and no-boating zones around the sculptures, likely lessening harmful impacts of vessel traffic on the recovering plain.

The project “allowed us to think larger than the project and to build a policy around the preservation of the sea or the shore and the islands,” says Resbeut-Montanella.

Meanwhile in Australia, the Museum of Underwater Art is already seeing dividends from public engagement efforts at its Underwater Greenhouse on John Brewer Reef, a 236-square-foot coral conservatory populated by eight human statues installed by deCaires Taylor in 2019. (Jump to visitation information.)

The site was popular with Australian divers looking to recreate safely during the pandemic, and “it’s not just existing scuba divers” visiting it, says Dr. Adam Smith, a MOUA board member and CEO of Reef Ecologic, a marine health consulting firm based in Townsville. “It’s also inspired quite a few people to learn…and to get in the water just to see this.”

In addition to engaging with the general public, the museum runs a program that makes use of the site to train Indigenous residents in the skills required for employment in marine resource management, such as diving, boating and reef restoration.

Reef Ecologic is monitoring the Greenhouse to gauge its environmental impact. To date, 132 corals have been outplanted, with a 100 percent survival rate, and several have taken hold naturally. There has also been a “significant increase” in fish abundance and diversity, Smith says.

For deCaires Taylor, that is the most gratifying part. “You can have lots of opinions about the art,” he says, “whether you think there shouldn’t be anything artificial, whether you actually like the artworks. But I think, ultimately, the fact that there [are] all these fish there, and there is all this life? That is incredibly, incredibly satisfying.

A Wider Net

DeCaires Taylor is slated to install hundreds of statues in the second half of 2021. Late this summer, his underwater forest of more than 130 arboreal and figural sculptures will be revealed in the Mediterranean resort town of Ayia Napa, Cyprus. Twelve to 30 feet deep, this public installation will be available to snorkelers and divers at all times.

“We believe that this is the greatest opportunity we have on the island to raise awareness about the need to protect our marine environment, and to bring people in the water,” especially the youth, says Giorgos Bayadas, the fisheries biologist that instigated the project through Cyprus' Authority for Fisheries and Marine Environment.

Fishes swim around figural statues stand in a circle

Nest, located in Gili Meno, Indonesia, is heavily visited by snorkelers.

Courtesy Jason deCaires Taylor

Winter will bring him to Australia, where two additions to the Museum of Underwater Art await installation: a snorkel trail with statues depicting real-life marine scientists near Magnetic Island, and a shallow piece celebrating Indigenous culture by Palm Island.

DeCaires Taylor is increasingly focused on sites accessible to nondivers in an effort to sway a wider audience in favor of marine conservation.

An underwater city is in the works—some 200 buildings fully and partially submerged. It is merely a proposal today, but deCaires Taylor says conversations are ongoing with several potential locations.

Then there is his global treasure hunt. An aquatic Forrest Fenn, he plans to hide a solid-gold sculpture within recreational diving limits in a remote, undisclosed location. He would then provide “a series of clues and challenges” to help people find it, tied to marine conservation activities.

“If people cleaned their local beaches and collected 50 tons of plastics, then they could provide evidence, then I’d release a clue to its whereabouts,” he says. “I quite like the idea of one piece that engages all different communities, different parts of the world, together.”

The Coral Greenhouse, Museum of Underwater Art, Australia

The statue of a woman sits on a concrete block in a concrete conservatory structure underwater

The Underwater Greenhouse

Courtesy Jason deCaires Taylor

When to Go Oz is down to dive year-round, with water temperatures hovering between 71° and 87°F. Viz is best from June to November, peaking around 65 feet off Queensland. 
Depth The base of the structure ranges from 52 to 60 feet, depending on tides. 
Equipment A 2 mm wetsuit in the Australian summer (December to February), or a 3 to 5 mm suit in winter (June to August). 
Getting There Book a trip with a licensed park operator, such as Adrenalin Snorkel & Dive, which offers full-day trips every Thursday and Sunday from either Townsville or Magnetic Island. 
Cost A two-tank dive with Adrenalin starts at $314 AUD, which includes the $15 mooring fee that goes toward site maintenance; gear rental is $45.  
Fun Fact The Coral Greenhouse—which is designed to withstand a Category 4 cyclone—is only half covered in coral so Reef Ecologic can study how divers respond to the sculpture when it is coated in coral and when it is barren.  

Cannes Underwater Museum

A six-foot statue of a face split down the middle sits on the seafloor

A mask rests serenely in the Mediterranean.

Courtesy Jason deCaires Taylor

When to Go These Mediterranean waters are warmest from June to October, with temperatures generally ranging from 64° to 80°F. 
Depth 10 to 16 feet. 
Equipment Mask, snorkel and a 3 to 5 mm wetsuit; scuba gear is prohibited. 
Getting There Take a 15-minute ferry from the Cannes mainland to Île Sainte-Marguerite. The installation is most easily accessed from Plage du Grand Jardin, from which the sculptures range about 275 to 435 feet offshore. Be ready to fin yourself out; the site is a protected swim area. 
Cost Site access is free. 
Fun Fact Cannes’ mayor chose a mask theme to allude to the island’s distinction as the main prison that held the Man in the Iron Mask of local legend. The identity of this 17th-century prisoner is unknown; he is frequently rumored to have been King Louis XIV’s twin, adorned with an iron mask and forced into exile to keep him from ascending the throne. Such legends inspired the 1998 Leonardo DiCaprio film The Man in the Iron Mask

Museo Subacuático de Arte, Mexico

Statues of men in suits burring their heads in the seafloor

The Bankers installation, produced after the 2007-08 financial crisis, became part of the Museo Subacuático de Arte in Mexico.

Courtesy Jason deCaires Taylor

When to Go Diving is possible year-round in Cancun. The water stays between 78° and 82°F, but it’s advised to avoid vacationing during hurricane season June to November.
Depth The museum has two galleries. The 26-foot-deep Salon Machones permits diving; Salon Nizuc, 12 feet deep, is snorkeling only.
Equipment A 3 mm shorty.
Getting There MUSA offers dive charters near-daily from Cancun and Isla Mujeres.
Cost Certified divers can book a two-tank dive for $90 from Cancun or $115 from Isla Mujeres. This does not include the $12 docking fee to access the Natural Protected Area.
Fun Fact This 500-sculpture installation—the largest underwater museum in the world—includes the piece most widely shared online of any of deCaires Taylor’s works: The Bankers, a group of figures whose heads are buried in the sand and aerial rear ends have a cavity for marine life. These crevices are popular with eels.