A day at the museum doesn’t usually require an oxygen tank and flippers, but if nothing is done about global warming and rising sea levels, then one day plenty more landmarks could find themselves on the ocean floor. At least the Museo Atlántico, off the coast of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, was placed there deliberately by environmental artist Jason deCaires Taylor, providing some new real estate for the local marine wildlife and exhibiting the profound effects that human activities can have on the environment.
A Living Exhibition
Taylor creates underwater sculptures using pH-neutral cement that is free from harmful pollutants, providing the ideal bedrock for new marine habitats to emerge. Careful planning ensures that the figures are installed shortly before larval coral spawning takes place, and the rough texture of the cement encourages the larvae to colonize the artwork.
It’s now been more than a decade since Taylor’s first submarine installation was erected off the coast of Grenada in the Caribbean, and his latest project has brought with it some new challenges and surprising results.
“Each marine environment is very different,” Taylor told IFLScience. “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.”
Yet Taylor says the abundance of creatures that have taken up residence in the Museo Atlántico has surpassed that of his Caribbean projects and with it his expectations. “We’ve seen big schools of sardines, schools of barracudas and even angel sharks, which are really rare.”
Classified as Critically Endangered, angel sharks need all the help they can get, which is why the Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Zoological Society of London, and Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig set up the collaborative Angelshark Project in 2014.
One of the project’s lead conservationists Joanna Barker told IFLScience that “angel sharks used to be common around Europe a century ago. However, because they are a large-bodied coastal species that spend most of their time in the sediment where they lie in wait to ambush prey, a lot have been accidentally caught by big industrial trawlers.”
“We think this is a major cause of their decline on a Europe-wide scale.”
Describing the Canary Islands as the angel shark's “last stronghold”, Barker explained how her team educates local sport fishing communities on how to handle angel sharks if they are accidentally caught. “For example, making sure it’s unhooked in the water and not brought onto the boat, and not using a gaff which could injure the animal, to help increase the sharks’ chances of survival once they’re released.”
The team also encourages divers to log their angel shark sightings on an interactive map so they may better understand the distribution of the species in the archipelago.
Happily, the project – and more importantly, the sharks themselves – may have received an unexpected boost from the Museo Atlántico. According to Taylor, “some of the last remaining angel shark populations are in the Canary Islands, and we’ve had quite a few in the museum.”
Building An Artificial Reef
When choosing materials for his sculptures, Taylor does his best to keep things locally sourced, and the volcanic rock of the Canary Islands has been instrumental in the success of the project. “The more I can limit importing materials the better, so I try and use what’s available. Here in Lanzarote, for instance, I use a lot of basalt, a lot of volcanic rock.”
The location also plays a key role in attracting marine wildlife. Taylor says he chose to position the artwork “in the middle of a big bay on a completely barren, flat area of sand. And so just by putting something in this desert environment, it’s become a sort of haven for life. Everything’s kind of centered towards it for protection.”
Real protection, however, will require global action, and while Taylor’s installations may generate oases of biodiversity amid barren submarine landscapes, their real purpose extends far beyond their immediate impact. “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.”
Alberto Brito is the head of the Biodiversity, Marine Ecology and Conservation research unit at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife, another of the Canary Islands. He told IFLScience that the geographical orientation of the archipelago has a major impact on the distribution of its marine life and that human activities are now disrupting the balance of the ecosystem.
“The Canary Islands are aligned longitudinally, with roughly 600 kilometers (373 miles) between Lanzarote in the east and La Palma in the west. Because of their proximity to the cold water flowing out of the Sahara, the eastern Canary Islands have considerably lower ocean temperatures than the western islands.”
This temperature gradient allows the Canaries to harbor a unique mix of tropical and temperate marine wildlife, yet Brito says that rising temperatures are leading to intensified “tropicalization”, allowing certain species to thrive while others die out.
Even more alarming, according to Brito, is the introduction of foreign species as a result of human activities in the Canary Islands. “The oil rigs in Las Palmas and Tenerife attract lots of slow-moving ships that bring with them many exotic species, which are attached to the hulls,” he says.
“We can’t say for certain, but it’s highly possible that this has caused a number of problems, as the ballast waters of oil liners often contain toxic dinoflagellates. We also need to try and figure out which of these artificially introduced species are out-competing our native wildlife.”
The Point of No Return?
The Museo Atlántico exists on the crossover between science and art, and reading between the lines of Taylor’s sculptures, one discovers an appropriate depth of meaning and metaphor.
For example, visitors to the museum begin by passing through an opening in a large wall, 12 meters (40 feet) beneath the surface. “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,” says Taylor. “The air, the oceans – you can’t just section them off.”
That the Museo Atlántico is located in the aptly named Rubicon Marina is also loaded with symbolic meaning. “The phrase ‘crossing the Rubicon’ means to go beyond the point of no return, which is very nearly where we’re at with global warming,” he adds.
Yet the fight back against climate change has not yet been extinguished. “We’re still fighting to get more marine reserves in the Canary Islands,” says Brito. “The cold water areas are particularly important to protect, and this is something we keep in mind when designing these reserves.”
Ultimately, artisan projects like the Museo Atlántico won’t single-handedly resolve the environmental threats to the world’s oceans, but they do provide a powerful reminder that, in spite of the ignorance of certain politicians, man’s actions can have transformative effects on the natural world, for the better as well as for the worse. It’s up to us to decide what to do with that power.