Artificial reefs create a strangely stunning underwater world.
They stand still before you, their bodies seemingly decaying in front of your eyes. As you inch closer, though, you discover these apparently dying figures actually teem with life: hands, faces, and torsos encrusted by countless colorful creatures. It’s as if you’ve stumbled upon another world. Because you have.
Moliniere Bay, a few miles from Grenada’s capital of St. George’s, may look ordinary from above, but underwater, artist Jason deCaires Taylor has created an 800-square-meter sculpture park populated with more than sixty-five statues, each of which lures a kaleidoscope of marine life to its surface. Bizarre and beautiful all at once, the figures form a type of artificial reef.
In many ways, man-made reefs are like their real coral counterparts. Both thrive in warm, shallow, calm water; provide a habitat for a myriad of aquatic species; and guard against shoreline erosion. These “rainforests of the sea” may cover less than 0.1 percent of the ocean floor, but they support up to a quarter of all oceanic life, providing shelter, food, and breeding sites for sponges, jellyfish, turtles, lobsters, eels, schools upon schools of tropical fish, and so much more. Unfortunately, rising water temperatures, storm surges, pollution, overfishing, and other threats have wreaked havoc on the planet’s natural reefs.
Artificial reefs can help rebuild some of the lost biodiversity. Whereas limestone composes coral reefs, almost anything can be transformed into an artificial reef: sunken ships, tanks, submarines, decommissioned oil rigs, subway cars, even people. Several miles off the coast of Miami, divers are able to visit cremated loved ones whose ashes have been embedded in Neptune Memorial Reef’s various concrete, bronze, and steel structures.
Macabre as that may sound, many of the underwater statues by Taylor, a British sculptor, appear as if they themselves have risen from the dead. Putting the art into artificial, the figures resemble zombies crossed with Chia Pets. That’s because once placed underwater, an object begins attracting microscopic organisms to its exterior. Corals and other beings begin to cluster, forming ecological graffiti in all sorts of psychedelic shapes—pillars, cabbages, wrinkled brains, antlers, you name it.
In time, an artificial reef doesn’t merely become part of the environment; it supports it, providing shelter and a playground for scores of animals to hide, breed, and thrive. “Sometimes an artificial reef will bring in a whole different type of community of species than you would’ve expected, which isn’t detrimental, just different,” says Richard Dodge, executive director of NOVA Southeastern University’s National Coral Reef Institute.
Still, that you can turn almost anything into an artificial reef doesn’t mean you should. For example, two million tires were dumped off the coast of Fort Lauderdale during the 1970s. But because they were poorly tied together, ocean currents thrashed the tires about, flinging them into real reefs and onto land. Workers are still clearing the mess.
Mark Eakin, a coral reef specialist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, adds, “When making artificial reefs, it’s important to be mindful of what can happen when you have extreme waves, as well as which materials are beneficial to the organisms you want to help.”
Indeed, because much of the ocean is too unstable to support a reef, it’s crucial that the objects are sufficiently weighed down. Taylor, for instance, forms his statues on land using pH-treated, environmentally friendly cement. He then chisels a rough texture on their surface to promote coral growth. Afterward, cranes and air bags help maneuver pieces onto the seabed, where special drills bolt them into place.
Taylor’s seascape then progresses through an eerie metamorphosis as organisms gradually colonize the sculptures. What begins as a figure of a person eventually mutates into a Chia-zombie caked with various bewitching beings that also draw an array of fish.
“The jury is still out whether artificial reefs can make new fish or just attract existing ones,” Dodge explains. “Nonetheless, as a tourist attraction, they can be very beneficial by taking diving pressure off of natural reefs, giving them opportunities to grow or regenerate.” At the same time, divers and snorkelers should always be cautious about bumping into any kind of reef.
And while artificial reefs may increase biodiversity, they won’t necessarily attract the full range of species that a natural reef does, according to Eakin. “Artificial reefs are cool places to dive,” he adds, “but they are no replacement for the real thing.”
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