Europe’s First Underwater Museum Boosts Marine Biodiversity With Sculptures

The sculptures have even attracted a rare species of shark.

Credit: Jason deCaires Taylor / CACT Lanzarote

Designed as a place to promote education and the preservation of oceans and marine life, the Museo Atlántico features sculptures made exclusively by artist Jason deCaires Taylor just off the coast of one the Canary Islands. The museum has been opened for over a year, but was only recently completed with all 300 sculptures in 10 installations that reflect Taylor’s perception of some of the global crises occurring today.

Taylor has previously installed underground artwork off the coast of Grenada in the Caribbean, where the tropical waters gave rise rapidly to new ecosystems and he had instant gratification with the ecosystems forming around his sculptures.

“Previously I’d spent a lot of time in tropical reef areas, so I wanted the challenge of working in the Atlantic Ocean, where you’d expect a much slower ecosystem because the water is much colder,” Taylor told IFLScience.

Credit: Jason deCaires Taylor / CACT Lanzarote

As it turns out, the life developing around his new museum in the Atlantic waters has exceeded his dreams and expectations.

“We’ve seen big schools of sardines, schools of barracudas and even angel sharks, which are really rare,” Taylor said.

The sculptures are made of a pH-neutral cement and Taylor explained that he typically likes to locally source his materials because it’s more sustainable, helps the local economy, and is more eco-friendly. For this project, he used basalt, which is volcanic rock, and is plentiful in the Canary Islands. He also aimed at placing the museum in a barren area on the shallow ocean floor to promote marine life in the scarce land and attract snorkelers and divers. The museum covers 2,500 square meters of land and is approximately 12 meters deep.

Credit: Jason deCaires Taylor / CACT Lanzarote

Museo Atlántico provides a introspective look at the problems that the world is facing today, including climate change, willful ignorance, and the refugee crisis. Some of the sculptures include a couple taking a selfie while ignoring the crisis around them, a shipwrecked raft filled with people to represent the amount of refugees dying everyday, and a hybrid garden that fuses a human with sculptures of local cacti. The biggest installation features 40 human sculptures all walking towards the opening of a 30-meter wide gate to represent the absurdity of barriers around the world; with openings on either end plus an open top, it’s impossible to keep people or beings in or out.

“The idea of having a wall under the sea is supposed to be kind of ironic and ludicrous because you can’t control the world’s resources,” Taylor said about the piece, titled Crossing the Rubicon. “The air, the oceans – you can’t just section them off.”

The figures promote coral growth and the rough surface of the cement encourages larvae to colonize the artwork. Such growths attract fish, which attracts other fish and bigger species, and that’s how the museum encourages marine biodiversity. The most exciting visitor is perhaps the rare angel shark, who has become increasingly endangered as more trawlers drag fish and, accidentally, angel sharks behind them. Since angel sharks lie in wait to ambush prey, they are easily snatched up and can die quickly afterwards. Their last stronghold is thought to be the Canary Islands and visitors have seen many angel sharks within the museum, meaning the museum could be their safe haven and maybe even encourage reproduction within it.

Credit: Jason deCaires Taylor / CACT Lanzarote

Despite the positives of a growing ecosystem within the museum, Taylor wants to remind others that it makes only a small, local impact that needs to be matched globally.

“The ocean’s so vast and has so many problems facing it, so making small artificial reefs is not really going to make much difference. It’s much more about trying to bring some of the threats facing our oceans to a larger audience,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s effort to raise awareness is not only bold but makes a huge difference for the local species that take up residence in the museum. The museum is now open to the public and can be viewed by snorkelers and scuba divers alike.

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