"Crossing The Rubicon" in Lanzarote

This Artist's Underwater Works Use Creativity and Conservation to Save the Ocean

Jason deCaires Taylor has become famous for his incredible underwater museums

We're dedicating our July features to the world’s most beautiful and unique beaches and islands. With many travelers finally able to take the coveted beach vacation they’ve had to put off for over a year, there’s never been a better time to celebrate the sensational coastlines and calm waters that nab a starring role in our dreams. Dive into our features to learn more about off-the-radar beaches you should consider for your next trip, how one Spanish community came together to save its coastlinean ultra-exclusive Hawaiian island you might not have heard of, and game-changing beach hacks recommended to us by the experts.

Thanks to climate change, overfishing, pollution, and human negligence, 40 percent of the world’s coral reefs have been decimated over the past few decades. The World Resources Institute projects that 90 percent of them will be in critical condition by 2030, all of them by 2050.

Not if Jason deCaires Taylor, the British artist who created the world’s first underwater museum, has something to say about it. Inspired by a childhood spent island-hopping and snorkeling and the land artists of the late ‘60s and '70s, deCaires Taylor set out to make art that worked “on an aesthetic level but had a greater purpose” of raising awareness for the sad state of the seven seas while actually doing something about it. Armed with non-toxic, pH-neutral cement, he has become the foremost pioneer in underwater art galleries, which double as artificial coral reefs in Mexico, Spain, Australia, The Maldives, and Cannes. His first work opened in Molinere Bay, Grenada, in 2006.

Jason deCaires Taylor


He spoke with TripSavvy from Aija Napa, Cyprus, the site of his latest work, a floating forest called “MUSAN,” which will debut at the end of July, about his creative process, oceans as exhibition spaces, what he hopes people take away from swimming with his sculptures, his favorite oceanside destinations, and what we can all do to try to save them.

What’s your first beach memory?

We moved around the world to places with amazing beaches and reefs [like] Malaysia, the Caribbean, Australia. I became fascinated with snorkeling young. Some of the best memories I have [are from] when I was 6 or 7. We’d hire fishing boats to explore completely uninhabited islands in Thailand. We would snorkel around, fish, and cook on the beach. That experience generated a passion for marine ecology. When I was old enough, I became a dive instructor and worked on the Great Barrier Reef. 

Did those childhood experiences lead you to pursue this type of artistry and medium? 

It was a natural progression for me to study art and photography and then very natural to combine my two passions. I started working underwater 16 years ago. My land work needed more purpose, another reason to exist. Realizing it could be a form of conservation, too, was the catalyst for all of my work. One of the most profound reasons [to work underwater] is that the works are all living art that changes, making each visit very different. Very different from traditional sculpture, which always stays the same.

Cannes Underwater Museum


What makes the ocean a good “gallery?”

Besides the fact that we live on a blue planet, artists have done very little to actually explore that space, so it’s an incredible uncharted space. The colors and the viewing angles are different. It’s an incredible palette to work with. The evolution of each piece is extremely different. Being suspended in water free from gravity while viewing puts you mentally in a very different place. That allows a different connection to the work that you wouldn't get in a traditional white-walls gallery.

Walk us through the process of creating an underwater sculpture park. How long does it generally take from commission to completion? 

It’s a very complex process, not for the light-hearted. Projects can take years. For one in Australia, it has taken us almost three years to get permits. Other projects were signed off within a week. There are many different levels of selecting the right environments, conceptualizing the work, studying the environmental impact analysis, having a cultural dialogue with the people commissioning it, raising funds for it, construction, and figuring out the different engineering and material requirements, so they don't pollute yet stay anchored. Those things are different in each country. There's no blueprint that works in every place. Working in public often [puts you] in the middle of a political agenda. That can be difficult to navigate and impossible to avoid. 

How much work is done in the water?

I try to minimize that as much as possible. Working underwater is much, much harder, and there are a lot less techniques to use. I’m trying to create the least disturbance to the ecosystem. But all the coral planting and propagation happens underwater. The structures and foundations happen on land.

"Vicissitudes" in Grenada


What do you hope people take away from viewing your art?

We have this old-fashioned view about man versus nature as if we’re separate entities. I hope my work reminds people that we are nature. There's something about us looking at ourselves encrusted in nature. It's a time capsule reminding us that nature is fragile, we're nature, and therefore we're fragile and dependent on each other.

Your art works on many levels: as art alone, as social, political, and environmental statements, and, at least in terms of the submerged installations, as a way to foster new reef creation. Is it more important to you to be seen as a good artist or an environmental activist?

Definitely the activism and conservation side of it. That’s at the forefront for me. Ultimately, our work is very subjective. I don't like to force my views on anybody. But I do hope they get people thinking. 

You're like, can’t I have both? 

I wax and wane myself. Sometimes I look at a piece five years on and think, “Why did I do that? That’s not good.” Then another piece colonized by something amazing looks incredible. It's really humbling to see. I've gone back to the original pieces in Mexico and Grenada. I snorkel over. They’re teeming with life; thousands of fish, coral, and sponges. It doesn't really matter if anybody likes or hates the art. The fact that life is here now that wasn't here when I installed it is what matters. That gives me a good feeling.

An underwater sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor


Although it is probably like picking your favorite child, what are some of your favorite pieces that you’ve created? 

Like most artists, I always like my most recent work the most because I'm most excited and intrigued by it. Older ones I've seen a lot. I lose fascination. But a lot depends on how they colonized. Some old pieces are completely engulfed in these amazing pink sponges or have gold coral covering one side. And I fall in love with them again. Ultimately, nothing I create matches the hand of nature.

What have you learned or improved upon since creating your first underwater museum in 2006? Have the materials or processes evolved? 

You learn an incredible amount on every project because they're in very different bodies of water. I'm always adapting techniques and trialing new things. Over the years, I've gone from making life-size works to oversized pieces to an underwater forest. Some on-land works change color. Some works are more architectural and allow visitors to go inside. 

I’ve also learned a lot about how art interacts with the environment and marine life more. If you want to attract octopuses or crustaceans, they like a certain type of hole and material. If I want to aggregate schooling fish, that's another type of formation. Coral growth is dependent on depth, current, nutrients, and surfaces. I'm always trying to lessen my carbon footprint. For many years, I have been working with cement, which carries its own carbon footprint. I've been investing heavily to reduce that to net zero. I’m currently working with a new earth-friendly polymer cement that has a very low carbon footprint. I’m happy those now exist.

What are some of your favorite oceanside destinations in the world?

It's difficult to pick. I've been to so many beautiful places but usually to work, so I struggle to see islands and beaches as not work. When off, I usually stay home to relax. I always enjoy the Caribbean. I like going to back to Grenada, where I started.

On that rare occasion you find yourself on a beach for fun, what are your favorite things to do?

I like snorkeling. I'm trying to teach my kids how to snorkel and explore the sea responsibly. I quite like doing that. Having kids definitely adds another dimension to the conservation bit.

You are currently working on a pandemic-delayed museum in Cyprus. What can you tell us about?

It’s a quite dense underwater forest with around 100 sculptures that floats in the Mediterranean. Mainly trees; some float, and some I fixed the floor. It’s quite a new type of project for me. I had this idea about rewilding the seas. 

"The Ocean Siren"


The statistics about the warming ocean, coral colony collapse, and plastic pollution are horrifying. One study says the average person eats a credit card’s worth of plastic in a week. You made a rare terrestrial piece called “Plasticide” with Greenpeace to call attention to the plastics issue and “Ocean Siren” in Australia, which turns colors to reflect temperature data collected in the bay it’s in. Have you personally noticed quality changes in the water and reefs?

I’ve certainly noticed an increase in plastics on the shore everywhere. I've definitely seen a reduction in marine species, which means more algae grows, and things get out of balance. Most places I’ve worked are overfished. Coral is unpredictable. In some places, the coral was amazing, better than I expected. Other reefs have been completely wiped out. What was probably incredible 10 years ago now is a big field of sludge. Temperatures are definitely changing as well. Today diving, in the Mediterranean, the water was almost 30 degrees (86 degrees Fahrenheit). I saw tropical species, which is an eye-opener.

What can be done?

We have to decouple from this idea of constant growth being good and go the other way. I’m so in favor of rewilding everything. If buildings aren’t being used, they should be pulled down and planted. We have to reduce everything and bring it back to how it was 20 years ago. Look at the development in Mexico. It's almost like a bacteria where they just keep expanding, and the center runs down and dies. It's really tragic, and it isn’t alone in that trajectory. As a kid, Koh Samui had 20 rooms on the beach. Now there’s like 10,000. When I talk to local people, they all say the same thing: "You should have seen this place 20 years ago. It was heaven.” That's been a big impetus for me to keep working.