A day out at an art museum doesn’t usually require oxygen tanks and flippers, but if you want to see Australia’s new Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA) that’s exactly what you’ll need. The underwater sculpture park has just opened in the central part of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Townsville, Queensland, making it the first artificial reef in the Southern Hemisphere.
The artist responsible for similar underwater museums in Lanzarote and Mexico, Jason deCaires Taylor, has been working in partnership with James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science to create a sculpture park that highlights reef conservation and restoration in a blend of science and art – and tourism, of course.
The sculpture park features a sunken “coral greenhouse” and 20 “reef guardian” sculptures engaged in a myriad of reef-protecting activities, from looking through a microscope to sitting on a bench apparently taking a breather from gardening. The greenhouse, Taylor’s first underwater building, is the largest of MUOA’s installations. Nestled 18 meters (60 feet) deep, it’s 12 meters (40 feet) long and weighs a whopping 58 tonnes, anchored to the seabed with enough strength to withstand a Category 4 cyclone.
The sculptures aren’t just here to entertain divers and inspire wonder (though they do both), they are actually part of a plan to propagate new coral and hopefully generate a new marine ecosystem.
The works of art were installed just before coral spawning season, with more than 2,000 fragments from marine nurseries embedded in the pH neutral marine cement, which is easy for coral larvae to attach to. Using underwater cameras, the scientists are monitoring water salinity, pH, and oxygen levels, as well as recording what they hope will be the start of a new coral habitat.
The sculptures are also to preserve local people, histories, and stories through art. Working closely with the Manbarra and Wulgurukaba Traditional Owners, each sculpture is modeled on someone from the local Indigenous community, who traditionally owned the land. There are further plans for a sculpture park off Palm Island, an Aboriginal community on Great Palm Island, that is expected to open in 2021.
Another installation slightly more accessible to people is the “Ocean Siren” located at the end of the jetty in Townsville. Modeled on local Wulgurukaba Traditional Owner Takoda Johnson, the siren reacts to live water temperature data from the Davies Reef weather station on the Great Barrier Reef, and symbolizes the impact of climate change. Blue is safe, but dark red is a critical warning that temperatures have reached the level that causes coral bleaching, giving those on the shore a visual cue of what is going on under the waves.