A snorkeler swims over life-size statues near Cancún, Mexico, in a late 2010 picture.
More than 400 of the permanent sculptures have been installed in recent months in the National Marine Park of Cancún, Isla Mujeres, and Punta Nizuc (map of the region) as part of a major artwork called "The Silent Evolution." The installation is the first endeavor of a new underwater museum called MUSA, or Museo Subacuático de Arte.
Created by Mexico-based British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, the Caribbean installation is intended to eventually cover more than 4,520 square feet (420 square meters), which would make it "one of the largest and most ambitious underwater attractions in the world," according to a museum statement.
In doing so, Taylor hopes the reefs, which are already stressed by marine pollution, warming waters, and overfishing, can catch a break from the approximately 750,000 tourists who visit local reefs each year.
"That puts a lot of pressure on the existing reefs," Taylor told National Geographic News. "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."
—With reporting by Fritz Faerber
The people in "The Silent Evolution" were created from live casts of a wide sample of people, most of them locals—including Lucky, a Mexican carpenter (center), according to Taylor.
The characters range in age from a 3-year-old boy, Santiago, to an 85-year-old nun, Rosario (both not pictured), and include an accountant, yoga instructor, and acrobat, among others.
The tight gathering of people is meant to illustrate "how we are all facing serious questions concerning our environment and our impact on the natural world," according to a museum statement.
The sculptures (pictured in December) are made of a special kind of marine cement that attracts the growth of corals, according to creator Taylor. That in turn encourages fish and other marine life to colonize the reef, he said.
"Already, I think there're a thousand different fish living on them. There're lobsters, there're big schools of angelfish. And there's a big coating of algae, which is one of the [first] things to settle."
Pictured in late 2010, "Sarah," modeled after a U.K. linguistics professor, is the only "Silent Evolution" statue with a false lung, according to Taylor.
Divers can either fill the lung by blowing bubbles into a hole on her back or using air from their tanks. The air then slowly escapes though the opening in her mouth.
The cement figures will change in appearance over time as coral and other marine life takes over—all part of Taylor's vision.
"The manifestation of living organisms cohabiting and ingrained in our being is intended to remind us of our close dependency on nature and the respect we should afford it," according to a museum statement.
Already the exhibition (pictured in December) is drawing more divers, and area dive-tour providers are hoping the underwater museum boosts business and supports reef health, according to a museum statement.
"This is a perfect balance where we are protecting the reef, where we are bringing the tourists into the natural area," Roberto Diaz, president of both the Cancún Nautical Association and the museum, told National Geographic News.
"We are providing art to make it beautiful, and altogether [it] will help."
Taylor works on a cast of Charlie Brown, a 67-year-old Mexican fisher with Chinese ancestors, at the sculptor's studio in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, in February 2010. Brown "was the only person to fall asleep during the casting process," Taylor said in an email.
The sculptures are made from cement, sand, micro silica, fiber glass, and live coral.
"Kelly," modeled from a U.K. social housing officer (pictured in December 2010), was rendered looking up, with his hands open to symbolize questioning or prayer, according to Taylor.
MUSA, the underwater museum, plans to add sculptures as funding becomes available. But "The Silent Evolution" won't ever really be finished, since marine life will continue adding its own touches for centuries.