The coral reef ecosystem is a work of art, created by the most prolific of artists–this planet. Florescent animals create stacking, branching, ecosystems in vivid purples, yellows, pinks, blues, greens, even a fiery red. There is so much diversity of aquatic life in our coral ecosystems. How could a human element possibly improve the transcendent experience of our underworld art gallery?
Reef Ecologic is a non-profit on the Great Barrier Reef off of the East Coast of Australia. After Cyclone Debbie caused damage to the coral reef ecosystem in March 2017, Reef Ecologic won funding to help repair the damage. With their Whitsundays Reef Recovery and Public Art Project they are using an increasingly popular technique to provoke conversation and passion about the environment–underwater sculpture. Across the globe, we see coral reef art projects used to rehabilitate the ecosystem and raise awareness about ocean literacy.
At Reef Ecologic, they are taking their efforts one step further. As part of a social science research project, they are asking: is coral reef art an effective method to create environmental awareness?
Whitsundays Reef Recovery and Public Art Project- What Is It?
Reef Ecologic searched around the Whitsundays for an ideal location to place art inspired by marine wildlife in May 2017. They assessed 11 potential sites until they settled on the best option in the sailing capital of the world–Langford Reef.
With the help of four artists, they started an art research project. The test was to see if there was a best place to put marine artwork. So, they placed four pieces of sculpture created by local artists on the beach for one month, then the intertidal zone for another, and finally beneath the surface of the water for a final month. Visitors were encouraged to come see the soldier crab, nudibranch, and box fish artworks. They then contributed to the research by answering a survey.
The objective of this research? To get to the bottom of tourists’ feelings about coral reef art on the Great Barrier Reef.
The first phase of the project has concluded and we should be seeing results in a few months. But, an early sign of success is a renewed commitment to the Whitsundays Reef Recovery and Public Art Project in the form of new coral reef art. Six new sculptures will be commissioned for the project to be completed by the end of 2019: These artworks are part of a larger project across the Whitsunday region to support recovery of the tourism sector.
“We know art installations like this have been successful elsewhere – in the Caribbean, Maldives, Spain, Bali and Australia’s west coast. We’re looking to replicate this success and diversify our tourism offering.”
Coral Reef Art Projects Have Already Captured Global Attention
Where else have underwater sculpture parks been created to benefit the community, the ecosystem, and the industry?
-The underwater reef (above) is in Mexico, the Silent Evolution, is a thought-provoking piece about man’s connection to nature. It creates an attraction that gives some relief to the natural reef structures that can be damaged by overtourism.
-In China, there is a whole city submerged under the water. Visitors are challenged to question what is our destiny on this water planet?
-This elephant in Dahab, Egypt is popular with the large dive population. This acts as a great place for divers to test out their new skills and perfect buoyancy before heading off to healthy reefs.
-The Neptune Memorial Reef, mixes cremated human remains with concrete to build a living memorial. The site has attracted more than 65 different types of fish, shrimp and lobster, plus many species of sponges and hard and soft corals.
Studying the Impact of Coral Reef Art on Coral Restoration
The point of this work is the use of coral reef art as a tool to raise awareness. But is it an effective tool? We don’t have the results of the study yet but let’s imagine some possible outcomes.
Location of Coral Reef Art Matters
The first consideration with an artificial reef is the impact on the surrounding coral reef ecosystem. Where the art is placed matters. Placement can have a negative effect on the reef by competing with the healthy ecosystem. At the other extreme, it can create new coral reef ecosystems that rejuvenate marine life.
From the architect of Silent Evolution, if best practices are followed, coral reef art projects can create healthy homes for marine life:
“Sited away from natural healthy reefs systems on barren stretches of sea beds [coral reef art installations] provide a crucial role in drawing visitors away from natural areas allowing them space and time to recover on their own accord. These sites offer an important area for marine biologists to document and monitor a reef developing from inception. Some projects have seen marine biomass increase by over 200% on once deserted sections of sea bed.”
Underwater Sculptures Can Create A Healthier Community
There are benefits for the community on land as well. Art allows a space to have a conversation about how we impact the ocean and what can be done about it.
The issues that we face globally about our systems, how they affect people, and how they affect the environment are not siloed. Art can express connections that we don’t necessarily know how to.
In the Silent Evolution, sculptures of purposefully diverse populations stand side by side. Representations of people of all genders, ages, and homelands stand together as a complement to one another and their environment. (photo – Owen Buggy the “Kraken on Virgin Gorda”)
As new coral grows on the faces and bodies of these humans, we are gifted with an example of how humanity is benefiting the growth of an ecosystem. This symbiotic partnership can provide healing and mental balance to visitors.
Plus, art can activate people and is a proven force for empowerment.
“The arts can draw people to a common narrative that inspires participation, empowers residents to come together and build relationships and the trust that is necessary to overcome major challenges within a community.”
Will We See More Coral Reef Art Projects?
Conservation, environment, and art are sectors that always struggle to attract funding. This study of art in the Whitsundays Reef Recovery and Public Art Project can have a real impact on that issue. We intuitively understand that there is value in art and that art can provoke questions that we don’t have the answers for. However, funding is released when there is data to “prove” the “worth” of something. A project like this helps quantify the value of art. It might prove that coral reef art installations are an effective method for environmental communication. If so, we will likely see more projects that use art in a holistic and intuitive healing experience that lasts.
See These Related Blue Ocean Articles:
How To Get More Ocean-Hearted Intel Delivered To Your Inbox!
We believe ocean lovers can change the world. If you care about the health of the ocean and want to do something about it, then connect with the Blue Ocean tribe: Our growing community of ocean change-makers is turning ocean lovers into ocean leaders. It starts with you. Join us!