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Published January 5, 2011

Sculptures of human figures, submerged in nearly 30 feet of water off the coast of Cancún, Mexico, are providing a curiosity for vacation divers, as well as habitat for fish and other marine life. The sculpture garden is in the midst of the Mesoamerican barrier reef system, the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world.

© 2011 National Geographic; field producing and videography by Fritz Faerber and Julia Galiano-Rios

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UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT

Just off the tourist mecca of Cancún lies the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. It stretches all the way south to Honduras and is second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

But like many reefs, it faces threats – from pollution and warming ocean temperatures and overfishing. Add to that the pressure of hundreds of thousands of tourists visiting the area’s waters and the reef’s days could be numbered.

Jason Decaires Taylor is trying to help in a novel way – through art.

JASON DECAIRES TAYLOR, SCULPTOR: The sculptures are actually designed to become artificial reef units. The cement structure that you see behind me is actually a special kind of marine grade cement that’s engineered to attract corals so corals adhere to it, they grow, they make different formation. That in turn encourages fish and other marine life.”

His still ongoing project is sinking some 400 of these sculptures in nearly 30 feet of water. And in just a few months, the statues already attract a wide variety of life.

JASON DECAIRES TAYLOR, SCULPTOR: “Already, I think there’s a thousand different fish living on them. There’s lobsters, there’s big schools of angel fish. And there’s a big coating of algae, which is one of the things to settle.”

Taylor says the colorful display indirectly helps the natural reefs.

JASON DECAIRES TAYLOR, SCULPTOR: “This particular area of Mexico receives a colossal amount of visitors every year. I think over 750,000. And that puts a lot of pressure on the existing reefs. So part of this project is to actually discharge those people away from the natural reefs and bring them to an area of artificial reefs.”

The layout is important – basically Taylor envisions a big neighborhood for fish and other creatures.

JASON DECAIRES TAYLOR, SCULPTOR: “The configuration attracts fish, so there’s huge schools of fish that actually live above the statues and then if there’s any sort of predators or any danger, they sort of drop below and then sort of hide out in the feet area.”

The museum is attracting a growing number of divers. Visitors need to go by boat to reach this spot between Cancún and Isla Mujeres. The area’s dive tour providers are hoping the site both boosts business and helps maintain the health of the reefs.

ROBERTO DIAZ, PRESIDENT, CANCÚN NAUTICAL ASSOCIATION: “This is a perfect balance where we are protecting the reef, where we are bringing the tourists into the natural area, we are providing art to make it beautiful and altogether will help.”

The museum plans to continue adding sculptures as funding is available. The main installation of 400 statues, “Silent Evolution” won’t really ever be finished, since the marine life will keep adding touches for centuries…

Art and the beauty of the natural world – together may offer a means of helping preserve marine life.

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