MUSA - Isla Mujeres
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
In 2005 Hurricane Wilma wreaked havoc upon Isla Mujeres and her reefs. Much of her coral was damaged and talk was to shut down the reefs. Thanks to the forward-thinking of some great individuals, MUSA was born out of the need to create an artificial reef that would allow the natural reefs time to recover as well as alleviate the accumulated impact of divers and snorkelers. It has been a huge success that is being repeated in many other countries.
After the damage from the 2005 Hurricane Wilma, Dr. Jaime Gonzalez Cano proposed the idea of an artificial reef to the then president of the Cancun Nautical Association, Roberto Diaz Abraham. The idea was to take divers and snorkelers away from Manchones Park to an alternate area of concrete reefs.
By 2008 Roberto Diaz had left the project, understanding that it would take too long to flourish and become an attraction. Fortunately, Dr. Jaime persisted and presented the idea to the Nautical Tourism Subcommittee of using underwater statues as artificial reefs.
The idea of this was to draw people away from hurricane-damaged reefs and decrease the cumulative effect of so many visitors. The Cancun reefs are one of the most visited in the world with more than 850,000 tourists each year, comparable to the much larger Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Where artificial reefs were usually the result of sunken ships and objects that have fallen to the sea floor, the statues were a new idea and a new technique deliberately designed to grow and evolve within their surroundings.
Having researched experienced underwater sculptors, Dr. Jaime had come across Jason deCaire Taylor, who had been pioneering this artform in Grenada. DeCaire Taylor graduated from the London Institute of Art in 1998 with a BA with honors in sculpture. Also being an active SCUBA instructor and underwater photographer, deCaire Taylor was able to view the art differently.
After presenting the idea to the Nautical Tourism Subcommittee, of which Roberto Diaz was a prominent member, being president of the Nautical Association, the idea of a series of artists to create an underwater museum was born. Jason deCaire Taylor was hired to do the initial 4 sculptures.
The Environmental Impact Assessment, produced by the National Park Staff, Dr. Gonzalez Cano, and Roberto Diaz, provided the legal basis for, as of October 2009, the construction of 1,412 artificial habitats in 10 sites over the next 50 years.
Jason deCaire Taylor finished the first 4 statues and they were placed underwater in November 2009. By the end of 2010, The Silent Evolution had been installed.
The museum officially opened on November 27, 2010.
Although there was permission for 10 galleries, as of this date, only 3 have been completed. The Manchones gallery (Salon Manchones) at 9 mt/ 30 ft deep and the Nitzuc gallery (Salon Nizuc), at 4 mt/ 13 ft deep, and Punta Sam at 3.5 mt/ 11 ft deep
By the end of 2013, 500 statues had been placed on the ocean floor. 477 of these are in the Manchones gallery with the other 23 in the Nizuc gallery. Later Punta Sam was to have 2 sculptural sets laid.
More than 100,000 visitors visited this during that year (2013).
The statues are made using pH-neutral marine concrete that is free from any other substances, such as metal, that could be harmful to marine life. Made with the help of the marine park officials and the Cancun Nautical Association, and using inert fiberglass rebar, this material has proven to be the most useful substance in the support of reef growth. Rough textures are left on the statues of deCaire Taylor to help coral larvae gain a strong foothold.
The statues are made above ground and are cleaned of any harmful chemicals that might damage the water, the animals, or the reef.
Some statues have broken shards of coral from the damaged reef planted in them.
The Silent Evolution is designed to grow with the environment in two stages
Stage one is the building and placement of the statues.
Stage two is how nature transforms them. Coral attachment grows and transforms into a living reef.
deCaire states "I would also like to point out that this installation is by no means over and the second phase is dependant on nature's artists of the sea, to nurture, evolve, and apply the patina of life."(1)
The work took Jason deCaire Taylor 18 months and 120 hours were spent working underwater.
According to deCaire Taylor "120 tons of concrete, sand, and gravel were used, 3,800 meters of fiberglass, 400 kg of silicone, 8000 miles of red tape, and $250,000" (1).
To place the statues in the ocean, special lift bags were used to help control the position as they were lowered to the ocean floor. Once in place, the statues were drilled into place using pilings and specialized hydraulic drills
A special 40-ton crane was placed on the car ferry that travels between Isla and Punta Sam, to help put into position The Silent Evolution, which comprised over 450 figures, (2)
Location and timing
The location of the statues is of paramount importance. The permanent resting place is given much consideration before submerging the statues. Where possible, they are placed downstream from a healthy reef to intercept the all-important flow of coral larvae. In the case of the Silent Evolution, it is also protected by the Manchones reef system in the case of a tropical storm.
The shape of the Silent Evolution is the shape of an eye that faces the pathways of hurricanes, reducing the energy they spend on the statues.
Timing is also crucial. Coral spawning occurs in sync with lunar cycles and the pulses of larvae sent out are fairly predictable. Deploying statues to coincide with one of these events gives them much more chance to acquire a new generation of coral before other species, such as large algae, take hold.
In some statues, this process of coral growth has been aided by the implantation of storm-damaged nubbins and fragments that have been raised in nurseries, such as The Man on Fire, Holy man, and The Gardner.
The artists and their statues
For more information on each statue found in the Manchones Gallery, click on the name of the statue below.
Jason deCaries Taylor (UK)
Man on Fire Manchones Gallery 2009
The Gardener Nizuc Gallery 2009
The Dream Collector Manchones Gallery 2009
Silent Evolution Manchones Gallery 2010-2012
Roberto Diaz Abraham (Mexico)
The Ocean Muse Nizuc Gallery 2011
Karen Salinas Martinez (Mexico)
Seascapes Manchones Galllery 2011
Rodrigo Quiñones Reyes (Mexico)
Biomap Manchones Gallery 2011
Salvador Quiroz (Mexico)
Bacab Manchones Gallery 2011
Elier Amado Gil - Currently working on many new statues with Roberto Diaz
Jason deCaire Taylor
Antropocene Manchones Gallery 2011
Prostibocho Manchones Gallery
Urban Reef with the Intervention of Invaders Manchones Gallery 2011
Urban Reef with Chimney Manchones Gallery 2011
Time Bomb (mine) Manchones Gallery 2011
Time Bomb (fuse) Manchones Gallery 2011
The Bankers Manchones Gallery 2012
Void Nizuc Gallery 2011
Inertia Nizuc Gallery 2011
Inheritance Nizuc Gallery 2011
Holly Man Nizuc Gallery 2011
The Listener Nizuc Gallery 2011
The Last Supper Nizuc Gallery 2011
Reclamation Nizuc Gallery 2012
The Anchors Nizuc Gallery 2013
Vein Man Nizuc Gallery 2013
Self-Immolation Nizuc Gallery 2013
No Turning Back Nizuc Gallery 2013
The Speaker Nizuc Gallery 2013
Manchones Gallery - 9 mt/ 30 ft. Great for diving and snorkeling
Nizuc Gallery - 4 mt/ 13 ft. Snorkeling only
Punta Sam -3.5 mt/ 11 ft. Snorkeling only
The Space Invader
Perhaps lesser known about MUSA is the existence of three little tile aliens that look suspiciously like they have escaped out of 70-80s video games (that the old ones amongst us will remember).
A well-known urban artist, known by the pseudonym "Space Invader" (his name was taken from the 1978 video game arcade game of the same name) has made it his mission to invade the world with his crude pixelations of those 8-bit video games. Much of his work is composed of square ceramic tiles and if you know where to look, you can find these under the ocean at MUSA.
2 are found in the Manchones Gallery and one at the MUSA headquarters, which is well worth the visit.
As Space Invader states on his website
"In 2007, I was thinking of creating underwater sculptures. Five years later, after I was technically ready to undergo with this project, I discovered the work of Jason de Caires who had just joined one of the gallery that was representing me. I decided not to venture into his territory and wrote him an email about the coincidence. He replied me that he was currently working on a series of new underwater sculptures and that he would love to partner with me. This is how three space invaders ended up installed at the bottom of the Cancun Bay!"
His little invaders can be found all over the world and you can track his progress here.
The natural grazers
Dr. Jaime was contacted to clean the silent evolution because there were complaints about a large amount of algal growth on the new statues and visitors were upset that the features of the statues were obscured.
The initial growth on the statues was a thick layer of algae. At this stage, there were only 400 statues. The rest were to come later. Following instructions from the national park, half the statues were cleaned completely of algae, and half were not.
3-weeks later in the areas where algae had been removed, it grew back worse than ever: in the areas left untouched, the algae disappeared.
This inadvertent interference with the natural evolution of an artificial reef led to a very interesting discovery. What was unknown at the time was that a massive colony of sea urchins was living underneath the statues. At night time, these sea urchins would leave their habitats and do a natural, more efficient cleaning of the artificial reef. When their statues had had all the algae removed, they moved onto better feeding grounds (the other, untouched half of the statues) and did what they do best; clean and control the new algal growths.
This surprised all involved and was a great insight into the natural process of an evolving artificial reef system showing the negative effect that human interference can have on the natural process.
The benefits and Environmental tourism
One of the greatest benefits of MUSA is relieving the sheer number of visitors to the natural reefs. MUSA is so incredibly popular and successful that 50% of all entry-level and new divers dive first on MUSA.
Not only does this take half the traffic away from the reef, but it also provides a training ground for those who could damage a natural reef with clumsy buoyancy skills.
The snorkeling-focused Nizuc gallery, which is at 4mt/ 13ft is located beside one of the world's busiest snorkeling sites. As with the Manchones Gallery, it encourages visitors to spend at least half their time away from a fragile natural reef.
A natural reef is extremely fragile and one clumsy movement from a diver or snorkeler can break a coral. Not only do corals grow very slowly (the fastest growing at an inch a year), but this breakage, while not directly injuring them, may leave them more susceptible to disease and algal overgrowth.
The income generated by these artificial reefs can encourage local communities to look after their reefs. An incentive toward environmental tourism that focuses on the well-being of a reef in place of the acquiring of the reefs commodities and residents, proving that more money can be made through visiting a reef than fishing a reef.
Another benefit comes from educating tourists about the impact that their actions have on a natural reef.
These artificial reefs are built on featureless seabeds that would normally hold no appeal to underwater visitors. Where no marine life existed, now an independent ecosystem is thriving and the artificial reef is smothered in life. Biological diversity has been boosted as a result.
From a scientific perspective, much has been learned about how an ecosystem works. The interactions and role that each species plays in the success of a natural, self-sustaining ecosystem become quickly evident with each having their part in keeping the ecosystem in balance.
From the hard corals and coralline algae that work together to create structure and habitat; to the sponges and branching corals that shield the reef from currents and offer shelter; to the grazers that control the algae and open substrate for new coral to attach; to the animals that live there. All have their role to play and their success depends upon the success of the other. A delicate balance and one that Jason deCaire Taylor considers when he designs all his statues.
One statue, The Listener, has a recording device inside that records thirty seconds of sound every fifteen minutes. In a collaboration between Heather Spence and Jason deCaire Taylor and the melding of art and science, much is to be learned about marine bioacoustics. Listen to a sound sample here.
The snorkeling and diving tours
The conditions for diving and snorkeling are amazing. With Manchones Gallery at 9mt / 30ft, it is an amazing place to train the new divers before taking them to the natural reef. With great visibility, generally between 20-30 mt / 66-99 feet, the statues can be seen by diving and by snorkeling, although the greatest interaction is with diving.
There is generally very little current, which aids greatly in training purposes for divers and the pleasure of snorkelers swimming above.
It is enjoyable for divers of all levels and underwater photographers will love the many subjects available to practice their skills.
Snorkeling tours have very strict requirements.
Life jackets are to be worn at all times
no non-biodegradable sunscreen (also scuba divers)
no more than 12 per guide
All guides must be legal with parque nacional certificaion. All visitors to the park must pay an admission fee in the form of a bracelet. This cost is generally included in the cost of the tour.
Ensure you only go with legal companies with the correct permits. Do not encourage pirate companies that do not respect the rules, the reef, or the local economy.