Lessons from the Blue Angel to Buccoo

Dr Anjani Ganase reviews the film Angel Azul (Blue Angel), part of the Green Screen events of  Sustain TT.  The documentary was made to provide key messages of the work of underwater sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor; and is instructive for any other attempts to mitigate coral reef stress with underwater sculpture. Follow Anjani Ganase on Twitter (@AnjGanase) and follow Wild Tobago on Instagram (@WildTobago    

The journey begins in Grenada where English artist, Jason deCaires Taylor, fell in love with the Caribbean and its wonders above and below the water. When the island was devastated by hurricane Ivan in 2004, Taylor (then 30 years) began work to create underwater sculptures near a damaged coral reef marine park. Sculptures were strategically placed on the sandy patches between the reef structure. The purpose of this was twofold; to relocate the diving stressors away from the natural reef allowing it to recover and regrow after the hurricane; and to keep visitors coming to the island by maintaining a unique underwater experience.

The popularity of his work in Grenada drew the attention of Dr. Jaime Gonzalez Cano, the Director of the National Marine Park in Mexico, who was also worried about the extreme pressures on their coral reefs from tourism. This is no joke, the coral reefs and marine waters along the north part of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, especially near Cancun, receives over four million tourists annually; their sole focus is to be on the water swimming, snorkelling, diving, fishing and whale shark watching. There is an incredible amount of strain placed on the health of the marine ecosystems needed to support this enterprise. Regulation was needed. 

Photo 1 Panoramic view of MUSA – the underwater museum of art at Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Designed by sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor. Photo credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey, The Ocean Agency

Taylor was commissioned to make an attractive alternative to the reefs with the primary purpose of alleviating the tourism pressures. See the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA – the underwater museum of art - http://musamexico.org). He chose to make statues that represented individuals in the local community, immortalising their images in stone (a marine grade concrete mix) and then allowing the marine life to alter these figures. The iconic Angel Azul was cast from a young woman with arms uplifted like wings. This simple act of inclusion has given the local communities an innate connection to the marine habitats. As the reef changes so do their underwater likenesses.

As a coral reef ecologist, I was apprehensive about the message being delivered by a documentary about underwater sculpture.  However, the Angel Azul project – with commentary from important marine scientists - was thoughtful, and conveys some clear messages. The purpose of the sculptures was to reduce the stress of tourism pressure, so the corals have time to recover; and the sculptures themselves to become an additional attraction. The selection of material suitable for marine life must not be toxic and should be long lasting; the location of the sculptures in the shallows on the sandy bottom is most suited for novice divers and snorkelers and away from deeper reefs. 

Most importantly, the design of sculptures is intended to be thought-provoking with impactful messages about environmental awareness and the urgency to change unsustainable human habits. The documentary earnestly expressed that the coral reefs simply could not recover by being left on their own; they also need less glamorous, necessary commitment to ensure the health of the coral reefs. Such projects must include the regulation and management of the immense waste run-off directly into the ocean. 

The hotel district of Cancun sits on a sandy spit along the coast that is only 14 miles long yet houses 30,000 hotel rooms. From this 14-mile spit of land (which could fit the whole population of Tobago) an incredible amount of waste leaches into the coastal water. Although the waste is treated for pathogens, the wastewater is rich in nutrients and results in macroalgal blooms that compete with and smother the corals. In 2013, when I dived the sculpture museum at Isla Mujeres (eight metres deep, and six km off Cancun), we saw that the faces of the sculptures were smothered by macroalgae making them indistinguishable.

Essentially, the statues have become a visual indicator of the health of these coral reefs and water quality. New surfaces introduced into the marine environment will always be colonised by marine life. The colonisers reflect the conditions of the water. In shallow, sunlit, transparent, clean (low nutrient) water, we hope that the coral and other invertebrates will latch on to the new surfaces. However, in an environment that has a lot of nutrients, algae blooms may proliferate, especially if there is limited fish life to control its abundance. We prefer the corals to the algae because corals serve as homes for numerous other ecologically important marine life that support underwater and human communities. 

I prefer not to put anything in the marine environment; marine ecosystems are resilient and do better without any human intervention or pollution. No way can these sculptures ever be viable replacements for living ecosystems which provide food, livelihoods and pleasure for humans. It is like replacing the jungle with a jungle gym. There is nothing to compare with the living coral reef ecosystem supporting the array of marine life in symbiosis with living corals. And the process of creating an underwater sculpture garden – incorporating concept, design, location, communication, materials - is very important for small island nations to consider, whose coral reefs are under more pressure than ever. 

Is it easier to go through an arduous process (albeit in the name of art) than it is to change habits and conserve what nature gives us?

Photo 2. Snapshot of the Google Street View Oceans Collection, showcasing MUSA the underwater museum of art in Mexico. https://www.google.com/streetview/#oceans/underwater-museum-isla-mujeres

There are considerations of a similar project for Tobago, where sculptures are being considered to help reduce the impact of the tourism. While I applaud the initiative, the messages are not clear, shrouded in rumours and speculation. What is the purpose for underwater sculptures in Tobago? Who will be responsible for the long-term management of both the underwater sculptures and the natural coral reefs in the area? How are the more pressing issues of nutrient and sediment pollution in coastal waters going to be managed in Tobago? Who is the creative mind behind the design and construction of the sculptures? (It was announced at the Green Screen showing - May 4, 2018 - that Peter Minshall did not design the underwater installations that had been unveiled.)

Over fifty years ago in 1967, Dr. Thomas F. Goreau, carried out the first of many assessments about the health of Buccoo Reef and provided the necessary guidelines to protect the reef. Most of his recommendations are still applicable today but not enforced. The problem with coral reefs of Tobago is the lack of management; and projects such as an underwater sculpture park will not survive without strict and sustained regulation of the marine protected and unprotected areas as well as the activities on land.

Angel Azul refers to the Blue Angel statue, also known as the Reclamation. She is the centrepiece of the documentary about Taylor’s underwater sculptures (many of which are darker icons of human existence).  It is located at Punta Nizuc at the southern point of Cancun. She watches over the coral reefs of Mexico and is a symbol of a hopeful future for coral reefs; and ironically, of our future.

Please see earlier post:

Do your own virtual dive of the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA – the underwater museum of art at Isla Mujeres:


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