Page last updated at 13:14 GMT, Thursday, 19 November 2009

Mexico's 'giant underwater museum'

deCaires Taylor
Artist Jason deCaires Taylor prepares one of his sculptures. Picture Don Couch

By Dhruti Shah
BBC News

Visitors to a national park in Cancun could soon come face-to-face with life-sized sculptures in human form fixed in the seabed, as plans to create what could be the world's largest underwater museum start to become a reality.

On 19 November, four sculptures are due to be submerged in the Caribbean waters, off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico's eastern state of Quintana Roo.

They will be the first of many hundreds of figures, which will be dotted around an area of the region's national park.

Underwater sculpture in Grenada

The sculptures will be made of PH-neutral concrete, which, it is hoped, will attract algae and marine life and give the local ecosystem a boost.

According to the park's director Jaime Gonzalez, one of the aims is to reduce the pressure on the natural habitat in other areas of the park by luring tourists away from existing coral reef, which has suffered damage from hurricanes and human activity.

Some 750,000 people visit the park a year, said Mr Gonzalez, with about 450,000 of them visiting Punta Nizuc, an area of just four hectares.

Fewer visitors could allow the coral in the area to regenerate, giving it a greater chance of withstanding hurricane damage, said Mr Gonzalez.

One of the first sculptures to be installed is called La Jardinera de la Esperanza, which features a young girl lying on garden patio steps, cultivating pot plants. Situated just four metres below the surface, it will include propagated coral that is expected to prosper in its new environment.

"It all happens rather quickly - within two weeks, we will see green algae," says artist Jason deCaires Taylor, who is in charge of the project. "Then within a few months, juvenile algae will appear and the project will progress from there."

La Jardinera de la Esperanza
La Jardinera de la Esperanza waits to be submerged

The sculptures have been designed to be durable and, according to Mr deCaires Taylor, will have no detrimental effect on the local ecosystem.

"We carried out an environmental survey beforehand," he said.

The conservation of coral is at the forefront of many environmentalists' minds.

Coral reefs make up less than a quarter of 1% of the ocean's floor. Yet they are a key source of food, income and coastal protection for around 500 million people worldwide.

The project has an initial budget of $350,000 (£210,000), with a significant proportion of the funding being provided by the Mexican government. The rest has been donated by individuals and organisations with an interest in promoting the area.

Mr Gonzalez said: "We already have $160,000 but if this is successful, then who knows when the project will end."

Artists should get involved in environmental matters so it is not just scientists getting the message out there
Dr Paul Jepson
Oxford University

Mr deCaires Taylor is travelling around the country looking for people from various backgrounds to pose for the exhibition.

"The other day I was in a cafe and saw a really fascinating man with strong character lines and expressions, so in my bad Spanish went over to him to explain about the project. Next thing, he was in his underpants in my studio being cast in plaster alginate."

One aim of the subterranean museum is to attract more tourism to the region.

This year, 4.6 million international tourists visited Mexico compared with 5.2 million in the same period last year.

Robert Diaz, president of one of the project's key sponsors, Cancun Nautical Association, said the area had been badly affected by the recession and other factors, such as Mexico's narcotics war and negative publicity surrounding the H1N1 (swine flu) virus.

Dr Paul Jepson, a lecturer in conservation at the UK's University of Oxford, welcomed the idea of the museum.

"Conservationists need to find different ways of engaging with the world. Artists should get involved in environmental matters so it is not just scientists trying to get the message out there," he said.

The idea of underwater museums are not new. A number already exist around the world.

In Egypt, Unesco has voiced its support for a planned underwater museum in Alexandria, which would host treasures belonging to Queen Cleopatra. And in May this year China's Baiheliang Underwater Museum in Chongqing opened to the public.

Made from a natural ridge in the Yangtze River, visitors can see inscriptions by poets and writers, some of which are thousands of years old.

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