Imagine life frozen underwater. Just off the coast of the Hotel Zone in Cancun, hundreds of life-like sculptures are suspended in enigmatic poses in the dark, silent depth of the ocean floor. As if stopped in mid-motion of a postmodern dance routine, they quietly warn divers and snorkellers the dangers of a damaged ecosystem.
What began as a conservation effort to divert tourists from the damaged coral reefs nearby, the concrete sculptures of Cancun’s Underwater Museum (MUSA) grew to become a world-class attraction. The sculptures draw thousands to the underwater galleries every year and are haunting reminders of human impact on a precious environment.
From how it began to what to look for in its current galleries, here is our break down on everything you need to know when touring MUSA.
Tens of thousands of diving and snorkelling tours to the largest reef system in Cancun, Manchones Reef, chipped away its integrity every year. Plans to draw tourists away from Manchones began in 2005, when Dr. Jaime Gonzalez Cano, Director of the National Marine Park and then president of the Cancun Nautical Association, Roberto Diaz Abraham, attempted to create an underwater sculpture garden with minimal success.
When British artist Jason deCaires Taylor, who pioneered the world’s first underwater sculpture park off the coast of Grenada came onboard in 2008, he started drawing plans together for the Silent Evolution exhibit. By late 2009, sculptures made in the image of real-life models standing pensively with their eyes closed were dropped into the water near Isla Mujeres. A little over a year later, the gallery was ready for public viewing, and MUSA finally opens its doors in November of 2010.
Over the next three years, MUSA grew to include three different galleries off the coast of Cancun and attracts more than 100,000 visitors every year.
Today, there are more than 500 sculptures in MUSA, divided among three separate underwater galleries in Manchones, Punta Nizuc, and Punta Sam, covering more than 420 m2 of the ocean floor off the coast of Cancun.
The sculptures are made from a cement mix that encourages coral, plankton, and seaweed growth on the surface, making them more effective than the use of sunken cars and ships to grow artificial reefs. Some are drilled with holes to allow marine life to populate inside the openings. Most of the Silent Evolution sculptures are now covered in corals and marine fauna, adding another layer of eeriness to the otherworldly exhibits.
Majority of the MUSA sculptures are made by Taylor, with the rest by five other Mexican artists. Damaged corals are sometimes used as decorations to help raise awareness of reef conservation efforts, while sculptures are usually put in symbolic poses. Sculptures like “The Banker” in Manchones shows five businessmen prostrating on the ground and burying their heads in the sand. In Punta Sam gallery, sculptures of a man, a woman, and a fetus becoming fossilized in “Vestiges” forebode humanity’s eventual extinction.
Scuba diving is recommended for Manchones gallery, while the other two galleries are in shallower depths for snorkelling.