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Art undersea: These eerie underwater sculptures attract divers, snorkelers — and fish

Jason deCaires Taylor’s “The Gardener of Hope” is one of the sculptures at the MUSA underwater park off the coast of Cancun. The Stills Life Style Agency for MUSA

Longing for a sequel to last year’s Oscar winner for best picture, “The Shape of Water”? Here’s the next best thing: A visit to the MUSA underwater park off the coast of Cancun. The figure in the sculpture “Resurrection” by Jason deCaires Taylor in Punta Nizuc looks a lot like the marine creature in the hit movie. This one even sports an extra layer of algae. Perhaps Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro got inspired here, or perhaps you’ll be motivated to write some fan fiction? Or not. But it’s still a very cool thing to see.

Eerie. Creepy. Odd. Mystical. Alluring. Provocative. These are the adjectives that divers and snorkelers use to describe the undersea world of more than 500 pieces of art that grace the seafloor here. Launched in 2009 by Roberto Diaz Abraham, a sculptor and former president of the Cancun Nautical Association, and Jaime Gonzalez Cano, former director of the Cancun-Isla Mujeres National Marine Park, MUSA (Museo Subacuatico de Art) occupies more than 2,000 square meters and its artwork weighs more than 200 tons. This astonishing museum-in-the-sea is the largest and most ambitious underwater art installation in the world.


Given that most of the sculpted figures are life-size (residents of nearby Puerto Morelos posed as models, along with “Today” show anchors and a Victoria’s Secret model), but now sprout algae and coral polyps, you feel a bit like you’ve slipped into a forgotten, doomed city as you dive around pieces like “Silent Evolution,” featuring 450 figures, and “The Banker” (people with their heads buried in the sand.) Each piece is designed to tell a story — some obvious, some open to interpretation. There’s a VW Beetle sculpture, built to scale, by Taylor (whose work is also featured in Grenada’s Underwater Sculpture Park), and another piece called “Blessings” by Cuban artist Elier Amado Gil that features six giant-size hands. One we love: the “lobster city” that fishermen can’t get their hooks into — it’s a lobster nursery, according to artist Taylor. Besides Taylor and Gil, artists represented at MUSA include Karen Salinas Martinez, Diaz Abraham, Rodrigo Quinones Reyes, and Salvador Quiroz Ennis.

“Anthropocene” by Jason deCaires Taylor. The VW Beetle is built to scale. The Stills Life Style Agency for MUSA

The sculptures are fixed to the seabed and spread among three locations: Salon Manchones, off the coast of Isla Mujeres, at eight meters deep (best viewed by diving at 28 feet); Punta Nizuc, located at the southern tip of Cancun’s hotel zone (at four meters deep, these are viewable by snorkeling); and Punta Sam, 3.5 meters under the Caribbean Sea near the Punta Sam reef in Cancun. Scuba and snorkel outfitters offer trips to see the park; they even offer glass-bottom boat tours to see the shallow installations at Punta Nizuc, where 18 pieces are on display. Punta Sam offers nine; the rest are in the largest underwater gallery, Salon Manchones. Despite what the outfitters will tell you, it makes no sense to snorkel at Salon Manchones; you’ll barely see anything except the tops of the heads of the figures, and it’ll cost you around $60 per person for the (frustrating) excursion. Better to see fewer pieces, closer up, at the other locales.


So why go to the trouble of installing 200-plus tons of artwork underwater? “We were solving a conservation issue with art,” says Diaz Abraham, president/director of MUSA and one of its artists. The goal is to draw visitors away from the natural reef at Cancun-Isla Mujeres Marine Park. That marine area is one of the most-visited expanses of water in the world, hosting approximately 800,000 divers and snorkelers annually. All of that recreational love — and over-visitation — places immense pressure on the natural reefs. “Beginner divers are the most dangerous for the natural reef,” Diaz Abraham says. Eight years after the first three sculptures were placed, nearly all neophyte divers and snorkelers are taken to MUSA, resulting in 400,000 fewer visitors to the reef, he reports. “MUSA has taken a huge stress off the reef,” says Tracy Gunn, course director at Pocna Dive Center in Isla Mujeres. MUSA works are installed on flat, sandy areas of the sea floor where sea grass waves and sea turtles feed. The sculptures are made of a pH-neutral cement where coral polyps can grow, and ultimately create an artificial reef that attracts sea life.


“Understanding” by Elier Amado Gil. The Stills Life Style Agency for MUSA

That seems to be happening. A number of fish species have returned to the area after not being seen for years. “Life on the sculptures has exploded. More than 200 species of animals have been identified [there] by Dr. Vivianne Solis, our scientist researcher,” Diaz Abraham notes. Dive master Gunn has observed a “massive school” of grey angelfish around MUSA. These fish are typically solitary or only accumulate in pairs or small groups, she says. “MUSA is the only place in the world where I have seen this.”

Visiting MUSA is a surreal, and definitely memorable, experience. You don’t have to get wet to get a sense of it: Besides the three galleries under the sea, MUSA has a space in Cancun’s Hotel Zone featuring four replicas of submerged art, plus 20 pieces on display that will eventually be sunk into the ocean. Visitors can watch Cuban artist Elier Amado Gil, head artist at MUSA, create pieces destined for the exhibit in a working atelier.


But there’s something about seeing art underwater, alongside barracudas, which takes this experience over the top.

MUSA’s landside sculptural park is located at Boulevard Kukulcan Km 5.5 Cancun Q. Roo. Galleries, visitor center, and artist atelier in Cancun are at Cerrada las Golondrinas, Alfredo V. Bonfil; (998) 2060182. For an underwater visit to the park, contact Pocna Dive Center, www.pocnadivecenter.com; (998) 274-9111. www.musa

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.